Features of Challenge Coins

Challenge coins incorporate a number of common features that are readily identified. Such features are limited only by the minter’s capabilities and customer’s imagination. It is not unusual to see commonalities in a coin’s features from a single unit over time, as many units feel very strongly in a coin’s symbolic representation. Such consistency in design often becomes a point of pride that makes the challenge coin, and its association, so valued to the soldiers whom receive them.

According to the US Mint and other sources, some common features of coins, to include challenge coins, can involve  the following;

Common Features to a Challenge Coin
Common Features to a Challenge Coin

Centering: The type of material used at the heart of a coin. Typically this is a metal consistent with the overall coin (i.e. pennies are made of copper, silver coins are made from silver). In a challenge coin it’s center often divides between brass or zinc. While brass offers more rigidity, it often tends to be heavier and more expensive in the overall cost. Zinc on the other hand is lighter and cheaper, but it offers a lower quality of coin, as the alloy in the center will wear faster in heat resulting in warping or bending.

Cut-out: Portions of the coin that are removed or represent a negative space. In currency coins, this is commonly seen as a hole in the center that aids in placing the coin on a counting rod. For challenge coins, it serves to highlight the portrait or other features by removing minor portions of the surrounding coin.

Edge: The outer border and “third side” of a coin, the edge is the extreme outer edge of a coin. Not to be confused with the “rim”, the coin’s edge can typically be one of several designs, such as plain, reeded, lettered, or decorated. In challenge coins unique anti-counterfeiting measures can be placed on a coin’s edge, such as motto or serial number. However, due to its limited visibility when viewed from either the obverse or reserve, a majority of edges in challenge coins are left plain.

Enamel: Paint in varying color and quality. Considered decorative, enamel is not widely used in coins of currency and more for challenge coins or poker chips. Differences in enamel are divided between hard and soft. Soft enamel can be paint similar to spray or model paint that lacks luster and is easily removed. It can also dry unevenly at regular temperatures and fade if left too long in direct sunlight. Oppositely, hard enamel paint is of higher quality and must be baked on or heated to a coin via curing. This gives hard enamel a very high glossy finish that is both durable and resists fading (note resist – not impervious).

Epoxy: A hard clear plastic or enamel coating over portions of the obverse and/or reverse of a coin. Less used in currency coins, for challenge coins it serves to protect the color and epoxy of a challenge coin, and the overall finish.

Field: Commonly referred to as the “background” of a coin the field consists of no pictures or writing. The field is present on both the obverse and reverse of a coin and serves to offer distinct contrast to a coin’s raised features or portrait.

Finish: Taken as the outward appearance of a coin, in challenge coins the finish comes commonly in the following varieties; Antique Copper, Copper, Antique Gold, Gold, Antique Silver, Silver, Satin Silver, Nickel, Black Nickel, Antique Nickel, Chrome, Brass & Dual Plating in Gold. Typically antique finishes are dull and appear burnished/weathered while others offer higher gloss with no “shadowing”.

Hairlines: A hairline is a scratch or line on a coin, usually caused by cleaning, polishing, or excessive handling.

Inscription: Words stamped on a coin. In challenge coins this is typically seen in legends or mottos.

Legend: The main inscription or lettering on a coin. Typically a coin’s legend includes wording denoting a specific year or motto, such “Liberty” or “United States of America”. In the example of the 3rd Infantry Division’s challenge coin, the legend refers to the year the division’s mascot, and challenge coin design, were approved.

Mint Mark: A small letter or symbol on a coin used to identify where a coin was made. Not typically associated to challenge coins.

Motto: Mottos are inscriptions of phrases typically shared among a wide variety of coinage, and meant to express a guiding principle. Mottos on U.S. coins include “In God We Trust” and “E Pluribus Unim.” Not to be confused with a legend, in challenge coins the motto is often not something specific, but a common inscription widely associated to a specific unit or command. In the example of the 3rd Infantry Division challenge coin the motto is the division’s nickname of being known as the “Rock of the Marne”.

Obverse: Considered the front side of the coin, the obverse is otherwise known as the “head” of the coin. This reference stems from a variety of historic origins wherein the obverse displayed “the head” of a prominent person of State. Taken in challenge coins, this is often the side of the coin depicting the unit crest and/or Commander’s rank and/or name. Generally speaking, the obverse is also the side of the coin with the principle design (that is often the largest) with date, legend, or mintmark. However, if that fails to distinguish the proper side of a coin, the obverse is the side of the coin that is more commonly shared among a wide variety of coins. An example would be the 3rd Infantry Division Commander’s challenge coin wherein the 3rd Infantry Division patch/crest marks the obverse as it shares all these distinguishing features. Today a convention exists to display or photograph coins with the obverse to the left and reverse to the right.

Odd-shaped: Coins of non-circular design. Not commonly associated to currency, but odd-shaped challenge coins create unique coins that stand out from others. Found in any shape, they depend on the ability of the minter to create a custom piece outside of the typical circular design.

Portraits: The primary design of a coin is considered the portrait. Frequently raised slightly above the field, most portraits consist of presidents and other notable political figures. In the instance of challenge coins, a portrait is commonly associated to a unit’s crest, seal, or mascot and is typically in high detail.

Relief: The part of a coin’s design, either obverse or reverse, that is raised above the surface, opposite of incuse.

Reverse: Opposite of the front side to a coin, the backside is called the reverse. Its name is taken from the historic practice of markings of the coin’s reverse with symbols of State – often a bird and hence “tails”. The reverse often contains the value of a coin in modern currency; or for challenge coins, includes minor features like unit motto, skill set identification, serial number, or a smaller design.

Rim: The raised edge on both sides of a coin (created by the upsetting mill) that helps protect the coin’s design from wear. This is a raised border that goes completely around coins on both sides. Its purpose is to protect the images in the center from wear. Rims also provide an edge for handling and a flatter surface for coins, making stacking them simpler.

Works Cited

United States Mint. Anatomy of a Coin. 2013. http://www.usmint.gov/collectorsClub/index.cfm?action=AnatomyOfACoin (accessed June 6, 2013).

—. Coin Term Glossary. 2013. http://www.usmint.gov/collectorsClub/index.cfm?action=glossary (accessed June 6, 2013).


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A Site Dedicated to Military Challenge Coins, Their Lineage, and the Soldiers Who Earn Them

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