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Black belt coin


A black belt coin is a type of challenge coin. A challenge coin is a small coin or medallion used primarily by the military or military-like organizations, such as police or fire departments, that bears an organization’s insignia or emblem and is carried by the organization’s members. Traditionally, the coins are given to prove membership when challenged and to enhance morale. They are also collected by many current and ex-members. Challenge coins may be presented by unit commanders in recognition of special achievement by a member of the unit or exchanged in recognition of visits to an organization.


During World War I, American volunteers from all parts of the country filled the newly formed flying squadrons. Some were children of the wealthy who were attending colleges such as Yale and Harvard who quit in mid-term to join the war. In one squadron, a wealthy lieutenant ordered medallions struck in bronze with the squadron emblem for every member of his squadron. He carried his medallion in a small leather pouch about his neck.

Shortly after acquiring the medallions, the lieutenant's aircraft was severely damaged by ground fire and he was forced to land behind enemy lines, where was immediately captured by a German patrol. To discourage his escape, the Germans took all his personal identification except for the small leather pouch around his neck. At one point, he was taken to a French town near the front. One night, he took advantage of a bombardment, donned civilian clothes, and escaped. However, he was without personal identification.

He succeeded in avoiding German patrols and eventually stumbled into a French outpost. Unfortunately, the French had been plagued by saboteurs who sometimes masqueraded as civilians and wore civilian clothes. Not recognizing the young pilot's American accent, the French thought him to be a German saboteur and made ready to execute him. Just in time, the pilot remembered his leather pouch containing the medallion and showed the medallion to his would-be executioners. They recognized the squadron insignia on the medallion and delayed long enough for him to confirm his identity. Instead of shooting him, they gave him a bottle of wine.

Once back at his squadron, it became a tradition to ensure that all members carried their medallion or coin with them at all times. To ensure a pilot had his coin, a fellow pilot would ask to see the coin. If the challenged pilot could not produce his coin, he was required to purchase a drink for the member who had challenged him. If the challenged pilot produced his coin, then the challenging member was required to pay for the drink. This tradition continued throughout the war and for many years afterward while surviving members of the squadron were still alive.


The tradition was gradually lost and remained so for more than fifty years. Partially due to the high cost of coinage and the difficulty of creating special medallions. In the late seventies, an Air Force weapons systems operator who flew in fighter aircraft uncovered this story while doing a paper at Air Command and Staff College. Upon completing his studies, he brought the tradition back to his squadron. Modern technology enabled high-quality casting of the squadron insignia at a reasonable cost. The practice spread rapidly, first to fighter squadrons throughout both active duty and reserve components, and then to other military units throughout the Air Force.

Nowadays, many groups within the military in general use challenge coins. One such group is my old navy rating, master-at-arms.

Some American Chung Do Kwan schools have picked up this tradition and award black belt coins to their black belts. Any martial art style or school may benefit from the use of black belt coins.


Some benefits of using black belt coins are:
  • The coins are an object of pride and accomplishment.
  • The coins are something awardees may cherish for the rest of their lives.
  • The coins may become family heirlooms that are passed down through generations.
  • The coins may be used to identify oneself to another black belt of the same style or organization.
  • The coins may be used within an organization or group of schools to identify one's association with the group, such as when visiting another school in the group while traveling.

  •  Husky Taekwondo. [Online]. Available: http://www.sos.mtu.edu/husky/coin.html

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