Before custom military coins became popular among collectors, a very long time ago, those were used by the Roman Empire as a reward for their most valiant soldiers who excelled in combat. Such coins were also believed to be used by army personnel as a means to identify themselves.
One notable example of this particular usage is a story that dates back to World War I, where a rich air force lieutenant ordered a huge number of medallions – the equivalent of custom military coins at that time – and requested that each personnel in his unit were given one. One of the pilots of the unit decided to place the medallion in a small pouch, and wore it around like a charm around his neck. When this pilot flew his aircraft after he received the unit’s medallion, the plane he was flying was shot and severely damaged by Germany’s ground based weapon. This pilot decided to make an emergency landing inside the enemy’s territory and was immediately captured.
As a safe measure, the enemy confiscated everything the soldier was carrying, even his identification cards. The mistake that his abductors made was they brought him to a place being bombarded by the soldier’s allies. He took advantage of this commotion and barely escaped. He reached one of the forward camps of their French allies with great difficulty, but was suspected of being a spy. When it was time for his execution, against all odds, he showed the medallion, tucked on the pouch around his neck. Recognizing the engraved insignia in the medallion he showed to them, his life was spared and instead of being shot in the head, he was offered a bottle of wine, supposedly to make amends.
Aside from the inspirational story above – which depicts custom military coins as a life-saving item to identify a soldier to his or her comrades – another use of this item is to challenge other comrades-in-arms to know if they are carrying these tokens of unity at all times. The challenge is made by showing the coin and slamming it to a table. Everyone who cannot show his or her coin must buy drinks for the challenger and everyone who has successfully shown their coin in the room. There is a special rule, however, which states that when everybody is able to show a coin to the challenger, then the person who issued the challenge must provide everyone with drinks. So, initiating a challenge is essentially a gamble.
It is also awarded to soldiers with outstanding performance in the line of duty. This is made to increase the soldier’s morale and to act as reminder to everyone about the coin holder’s achievement. In rare cases, civilians can also obtain such special coins, especially those who have played big roles in military missions. If it is to be used this way, it is handed over to the civilian or military personnel who will receive it via handshake. The right hand of the person, which holds the coin that he will pass, shakes hands with right hand of the recipient. Before letting the awardees’ hand go, it is normal for the person who will give the coin to offer a brief explanation why he or she is receiving the coin from that person.
Whatever the reason why custom military coins are used, their purpose, and when they were first used, such tokens are still a beautiful piece of metal that is bound to last for generations, symbolizing a great event for the person who owns one. Simply put, being given that kind of coin is among the greatest honors a person could have.