Coins create a curious craze in this country. The U.S. Mint produced 14.8 billion coins in 2020.

But this number accounts for a fraction of the coins in America. Challenge coins are a military tradition that is sweeping across the United States.

Yet what are challenge coins? What is a “challenge” all about? What is the etiquette for presenting, maintaining, and showing off coins?

Answer these questions and you can honor a great tradition through some simple steps. Here is your quick guide.

The Essentials of Challenge Coins

Challenge coins are a popular military tradition. After serving in the military, someone receives a coin.

It may have details about where they served and what unit they were in. But there are no details that all coins have to have. They can contain bronze or zinc, and most are made with inexpensive materials so they are cheap to buy.

Many military members have at least one. Presidents and heads of state can have their challenge coins and give them out to service members.

Police departments and fire stations also distribute coins to public servants. It is rare for a company or a friend group to distribute coins amongst its members, but a few institutions do.

Giving Someone a Coin

Challenge coins are supposed to be secret. No one is supposed to know that someone else has them until they issue a challenge.

If you are giving a coin to someone else, you must present it in a handshake. You can conceal it in your palm or up your sleeve and then shake the recipient’s hand.

The recipient should know that they have a coin, but they should not advertise it to others. If a handshake is not possible, you can send your coin to someone in the mail or give it to them behind closed doors.

You should avoid giving coins to multiple people at once. Others can catch on and the indiscreet value of the coin will be lost.

The military can assign coins to people based on their ranks. If a lieutenant becomes a captain, they can receive a coin for captains. The same etiquette for presentation applies, though the new captain may have to hand in their old coin.


At any point, someone can issue a challenge. Most people do this by shouting, “Coin check!” Other people slam their coin down on a table or tap it so everyone can hear it.

At that moment, everyone must produce their challenge coin. Anyone who does not have a coin must buy the ones who do have coins drinks. If everyone produces their coin, the person who initiated the challenge must buy everyone drinks.

Some men in service have a rule about accidental challenges. Anyone who drops their coin on the floor by mistake has initiated a challenge. The same rules for deliberate challenges apply.

Other organizations have rules about theft. If a member is able to steal another member’s coin, that member must buy everyone a round of drinks.

The challenge applies to people within a particular unit or organization. Non-service members are not required to participate, though they can show their coins if they have one.

Explaining Rules

Challenges have an element of surprise to them. But some people are not aware of challenges, let alone about challenge coins.

If someone expresses confusion about the challenge, the person initiating it must explain the rules to that person. They then must wait a period of time before issuing another challenge.

When in doubt, you should explain the rules about challenges before your meeting. A short email to everyone is all you need to do. You can also explain the rules when you are presenting a coin to someone else.

Keeping the Coin

Anyone who receives a coin should keep it on them at all times. The coin can serve as a form of identification or as a conversation starter.

You can keep a coin on your person however you would like. You can put it in your pocket or wallet and you can tuck it into an article of clothing.

You can incorporate it into a piece of jewelry, but you cannot punch a hole through or deform the coin in any way. Some people may find it impolite if you put your coin into jewelry. The easiest way to wear one is to put one in a pouch and hang the pouch around your neck.

You must clean the coin whenever it is dirty. There are no special tools to help you clean. If you use bronze, you can buy bronze-cleaning tools at a hardware store.

Handing over your own coin implies you are giving it to the recipient. You should keep your coin in your hand when you are showing it off and you should avoid letting anyone touch it. You should also not put it down on a table or surface, as it could get stolen.

Honoring the Military Tradition of Challenge Coins

Challenge coins are a military tradition for good reason. Service members receive coins based on their ranks and units. Coins can identify the member and honor their accomplishments.

The presentation of a coin is secretive. Coins are passed around through handshakes.

Anyone can issue a challenge, requiring all members to produce their coins. Anyone who cannot show their coin must buy drinks for everyone. Yet the rules must be clear to all participants, and coins must be maintained through time.

Challenge coins are just one military tradition. Read more military guides by following our coverage.