One reason many people get into collecting military challenge coins, and related hobbies like patch collecting is the fact that history is so closely intertwined with the objects themselves. Plus, it is the type of collecting that lends itself well to either specialization (within a particular military branch, for example), or to a broad view. Starting a challenge coin collection does not have to be expensive, because challenge coin minting has become increasingly popular in recent years.
While many challenge coin enthusiasts came by their passion from having been awarded challenge coins while serving in the military, there are plenty of collectors who love the artistry of the coins, or who have a special appreciation for military challenge coins due to family ties or an interest in military history. You can find military challenge coins and patches from online dealers, auctions, local dealers at coin shops, and at meetings of collecting clubs.
Some collectors focus on rare or museum-quality specimens from further back in history, while others choose to pursue a broad collection. Regardless of the collector's motivation, there is no question that challenge coin collections can make a stunning display, demonstrating both great artistry and a unique collection to history.
The themes available on military coins, and on patches are all but unlimited. While U.S. Army challenge coins contain some of the oldest examples, the other branches of the military also have their own unique takes on challenge coin minting. And The National Guard and U.S. Coast Guard have their own designs too.
The most commonly accepted story behind the origin of these coins is one dating to World War I when an officer in the new Air Services branch of the Army had special metal coin-like tokens created as symbols of appreciation for the men in his squadron. When one of those men was shot down and captured, he managed to escape his captors with none of his original possessions or uniform, except for the coin he had been given by his officer. This coin he kept in a pouch around his neck. When he reached the French Allies, that coin was the only way he had of proving his identity, and because the French soldiers recognized the insignia on the coin, the soldier's life was saved.
Some have debated the ratio of truth to myth in the captured World War I soldier story, but nevertheless, it took hold, and so did challenge coins in the military. They eventually became used more for camaraderie and entertainment purposes for soldiers stationed in difficult situations. One popular coin game is where one soldier would challenge another to show his challenge coin. If the soldier failed to do so, he would have to buy the next round of drinks. This game made it traditional to keep these coins within reach at all times, often in a special pocket pouch, or a neck pouch.
Today, challenge coin minting results in coins with depictions and designs that range from dead serious to enigmatic to downright humorous. Some collectors choose to specialize in one branch of the military, or one period of history, while others go for as broad and interesting a collection as possible. There's room for every kind of collector in challenge coin and patch collecting because of the range of designs and stories behind them.