The First Official Challenge Coin... Maybe
No one knows how challenge coins came to be. One legend goes back to World War I, when a rich general had bronze medallions engraved with the flying squadron's emblem to gift to his soldiers.
Soon later, one of the young flying aces was shot down and captured over Germany. Everything on his person was taken by the Germans save the little leather bag he carried around his neck, which happened to contain his medallion. The pilot managed to flee and make his way to France. However, the French suspected him of being a spy and condemned him to death. The pilot offered the medallion in an attempt to verify his identity. Because a French soldier recognized the emblem, the execution was postponed. The French verified his identification and returned him to his unit.
Coins of the Special Forces
Colonel “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, 17th Infantry Regiment, had one of the first challenge coins manufactured for his soldiers during the Korean War. As a tribute to its inventor, the coin has a buffalo on one side and the Regiment's symbol on the other. Instead of carrying it in a leather bag, a hole was bored in the top so the men could wear it around their necks.
During the Vietnam War, challenge coins were popular. The earliest coins from this period were made by the Army's 10th or 11th Special Forces Group and were nothing more than conventional coinage with the unit's symbol imprinted on one side, but the troops in the unit wore them with pride.
Almost every regiment soon had its own currency, and some even manufactured commemorative coins for particularly bloody fights to give to those who survived to tell the story.
Challenge Coins for The White House
Since Bill Clinton, each president has had his or her own challenge coin, and the vice president has had one since Dick Cheney.
There are normally three Presidential coins: one for the inauguration, one commemorating his administration, and one offered to the general public, generally in gift shops or online. But there is one particular, official presidential coin that can only be obtained by shaking the hand of the world's most powerful man. As you would expect, this is the rarest and most valuable of all challenge coins.
The President has the authority to distribute coins at his discretion, though they are often saved for exceptional events, military members, or foreign dignitaries. According to legend, George W. Bush set aside his cash for wounded servicemen returning from the Middle East. President Obama distributed them on a regular basis, most notably to troops who man the steps on Air Force One.
From challenge coins to achievement coins
Today, it's commonplace for police and fire departments, as well as civic groups like the Lions Club and the Boy Scouts, to have coins. Even the 501st Legion of Star Wars cosplayers, Harley Davidson bikers, and Linux users have their own coins. Challenge coins have evolved into a long-lasting, highly collectable means to demonstrate your devotion at any time and in any location.
And all this, past to present, is where the inspiration for achievement coins comes from.