What’s in a Challenge Coin, the Metal or the Memory?

DSCN4387Ever curious to the production process behind challenge coins, I recently had the opportunity to test a unique material related to their production and one that can provide service members with mementos of their service and unit history. Eric Richards over at Phoenix Challenge Coins (PCC) has been developing an innovative method for several years to harden challenge coins and increase their longevity and durability. He asked if I could determine a way to evaluate if his new challenge coin production process would prove “field worthy” for service members given the chief concern among them is potential wear and damage to the coin during duty. Thus I felt that if a coin were sufficiently hardened, the tradition of challenging could return back to where it began; in the field and in forward deployed regions amongst the soldiers, not among dusted coins languishing in display cases viewed only through glass.

Some time ago I received one of the PCC corporate challenge coins; a large 2.25” irregular coin stylized to represent the mythological Phoenix bird that the company takes its namesake from. What makes it unique is the coin is produced with the Obverse and Reverse in a plating process Eric describes as,

The Phoenix Challenge Coin Armor (TM) and Armor Shield(TM) are two new processes I invented. These two processes allow a custom challenge coin or other product to stand up to every day carry and use in the tradition of a challenge coin with major scratch resistance, corrosion and tarnish resistance, and withstand more damage than normal, etc.. This means that those whom get their challenge coins made with these two processes will be able to carry them, and they will no longer be relegated to a display shelf in an office or left at home.

Eric asked me to test his coin against several others for durability/survivability based on conditions most likely encountered by a coin holder. But first I had to define what those conditions realistically were.

Service members will often chose to not carry their challenge coins because of the sentimental value placed on the unit’s history or experience, it’s Command, and the coin itself. If they do carry the coin, they risk wear/carry marks from friction or contact marks with whatever else is carried in the pocket (like keys or lose change), or (heaven forbid) scratches from occasionally being dropped. So it seemed reasonable to me that those would be the forces to evaluate against. Joining Eric’s PCC coin would be another corporate coin I acquired from General Dynamics with an epoxy finish to both sides, and a mass-produced electroplated coin of “dubious” origin. Therefore the test would not only evaluate the durability of the finish, but the coin’s base metal as well. The point to remember here is these tests are meant to represent the extreme sides of handling challenge coins, as most would never dream of rattling their coins up against ammo cartridges or dropping them on textured concrete.

The Testing Subjects
The Testing Subjects

The Gentle Touch

The first test I devised was just to test against general friction. The most common way to carry a challenge coin is in the pocket or wallet, and this can often result in worn markings to the finish or base metal as friction slowly rubs against the exterior.

I have a Dillon 750 medial tumbler that I use for cleaning spent .223 caliber cartridges. Normally I let the spent cartridges tumble around for about an hour before they are deemed “clean” of carbon, dirt, metal burrs or other surface imperfections. The tumbler’s process involves a combination of vibratory friction, heat, and constant contact between media and other spent cartridges. So, I left the three coins in there with approximately 300 cartridges for four hours. I then tumbled the mix of brass, media, and coins in a separator to divide out the cleaning media. I didn’t clean the coins aside from brushing off any dust or residue.

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The initial impressions weren’t entirely surprising. The electroplated coin immediately revealed failures in the paint/finish. Because of the bonding process, and the cheap quality of the coin, wear and discoloration were immediately apparent on both sides.

The coin with epoxy fared better with no apparent wear marks. Indeed the only notable impact was the epoxy itself started to become slightly opaque and minimally slightly tactile because of the minor levels of friction that was marring the epoxy’s surface (possibly also because of the heat generated in the Dillon).

And the PCC coin showed minor defects in only the Reverse with some discoloration to the paint in the company logo. The side with the Phoenix showed no wear markings or friction scarring.

Heavy Metal

Given that the first test showed little impacts associated to being kept in a pocket or wallet, I wanted to increase the level of contact. So basically I duplicated the process, but removed the cleaning media. This left basically the coins in direct contact against the .223 brass cartridges. I left the coins and cartridges run like this for about three hours. I then rolled the brass and coins in the separator just to have the coins rattle around some more.

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This test revealed advanced impacts to the coin’s resistance capabilities, and where all three began to diverge from one another. The electroplated coin clearly was now showing dents/chips to the coin’s soft metal finish. In addition, the paint was quickly showing signs of wearing against spots where the brass edges of the cartridges were in constant metal-to-metal contact.

The epoxy coin’s coating continued to become more opaque, and indeed the surface of the epoxy finish continued to have a notable tacky texture to it. There were some notable deeper scratches now however, and you could still see the design under the epoxy. It wasn’t until viewed from the side and not straight on that you could notice how much opacity had been lost.

I was beginning to suspect that the 3-D design of the PCC coin’s Obverse was doing a lot to keep the flat surfaces of the cartridges away from contact. I did notice that there was some minor finish transition on the right wing-tip of the Obverse from gold to silver showing some eventual wear. The linear reverse however, showed two points where the finish had been rubbed off by the metal-to-metal contact from the cartridges. The paint discoloration in the logo also remained, but had not significantly increased.

The Drop

The final test that I could come up with was to simulate an accidental drop while an individual goes to retrieve their coin. While per tradition dropping the coin means challenging all within sight, the more significant thing is the coin can become directly damaged or marred when dropped against a hard surface like concrete or rock. So I took all three coins and dropped them on textured concrete five times to see how they would take the harsh impact.

Drop

The results were somewhat predictable with the soft metal of the electroplated coin sustaining the most surface damage. The edging seemed to bear the brunt of the impacts with deep gouges to the finish and metal edges of the rim. It was painful to look at.

The epoxy coin fared slightly better. As when a coin is dropped it is most likely going to fall on the outer edge or rim rather than the flat sides. Since the epoxy coin was made of a slightly better quality metal, the edges sustained less gouging but still took significant surface scratching.

The PCC coin fared the best, save for the 90-degree angled corners to the design. On one drop the coin came down directly on one of these corners, and took a significant bite out of the base metal. Aside from that I couldn’t determine any other newly acquired marring or scratching.

In the Interval

While drafting this article I also continued to reload more .223 ammunition so I left the coins in the Dillon 750 tumbler while I processed an additional 1,000 rounds. They went through the entire sequence as ‘The Gentle Touch” test above, but over the course of several days to process everything.

At the end of it I used common gun oil, then water, to gently clean each coin of dust and brass residue to evaluate the PCCs’ final standing.

Conclusions

In the end, the choice of a challenge coin is one that must be carefully considered. There are numerous manufacturers that minimize costs to maximize profit. This typically shows in terms of the strength to a coin’s base metal, and protective finish. The goal of the Armor Shield (TM) coating is to improve the current quality and hardness of challenge coins; so that service members no longer have to be overly concerned with potential damage to their coins, and once again carry them throughout the course of their duties. Given that I tested the coins far beyond the average wear and tear they’re expected to endure, the Armor Shield coin showed significant improvements over the electroplated and epoxy coins for durability and hardness. It wasn’t until going through friction against 1,000 .223 brass cartridges that the paint on the Reverse showed its first signs of weakness under the heat and friction. Is this a practical scenario (meaning are you going to be carrying your coin around in an ammo can full of bullets)? No. But it still cleaned up significantly with a little (oddly) gun oil and gives you an idea of things you need to consider when looking for a vendor. Ultimately, it is the individual’s choice/responsibility when contracting with said vendor to develop a unique challenge coin for a Command or unit. Get one whose product has the strength to endure whatever you can throw at it for Every Day Carry and more.

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