‘Short Snorters’ and Challenge Coins: A Bar Game and a Collectible

An authentic POTUS/President Barack Obama challenge coin sold for $650 on eBay in 2011.

Imagine being behind enemy lines, slowly making your way through hostile territory to join up with your allies. There is a distinct possibility that you can be captured by hostiles, but when reaching the allies you also need to convince them that you are one of them. How do you do that?

That was exactly the situation the original flying aces may have found themselves during the First World War when the lines between foe and friend were so much closer. They solved it by issuing each flyer a distinctive metal coin of sorts that identified them as allied servicemen. Presenting the coin when reaching allied lines would help identify you as friend, not foe. That’s the story, anyway, of the first military challenge coin.

Not much is heard about the challenge coin again until about the early 1990s, when the idea of a coin that identified military units again took hold during the Clinton presidency.

However, between the original military challenge coin of the WWI fliers and the ones issued in the 1990s, there was something called the “short snorter,” a piece of authentic currency—usually a U.S. one-dollar bill—that was signed by servicemen during WWII. The signed bill was both a souvenir of your time together and a personal connection between fellow service members during a time of war. It helped pass the time and it’s amazing who you could actually meet along the way.

The connection between the metal challenge coin and the paper “short snorter” comes not in its distinctive and unique attributes for each, but in what it was sometimes used for: a bar game to get a free drink.

Unless you’re under fire, military life is a series of highly structured routines where tedium can be counted on as a constant throughout your career. Guard duty, KP, PT, writing reports, orders of the day and so on. Some service members break up the tedium through cards, dice, visits to civilian areas, whatever. Getting a free beer, however, counts as the ultimate off-duty activity. But how do you do that?

A challenge coin from Mike Force, Special Forces Unit attached to the 1st Special Forces Group. 3rd Battalion Mobile Strike Force, headquartered at Nha Trang.

The back of this challenge coin displays the name and date of birth of a Vietnamese operative. It brought $22 in a 2012 eBay auction.

A Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff challenge coin.

The reverse shows that it was presented by Admiral Mike Mullen. It sold for $50 in 2011 on eBay.

It is now expected that each member of a military unit carry a uniquely designed disk of metal and enamel the size of a half dollar that can depict your unit or your military grade. It can feature your unit insignia, motto, rank or anything else you want to show as a point of unit pride. Higher pay grades—such as generals, admirals, Pentagon officials and even the commander-in-chief—feature their rank flags, signatures, and, if they have one, their seals of office.

The idea is that when you are asked to present your challenge coin in a bar or pub. If you don’t have yours, you have to buy the first round for everyone else. If everyone has one, the one who began the challenge has to pay for the first round. Hence, the “challenge” coin. The next round goes to the one who has the highest rank coin, with the commander-in-chief (the president of the United States) trumping all.

A “short snorter” note with red seal from Marine Major Joe Foss, the World War Two flying ace and Medal of Honor winner.

The “short snorter” is not a 20th-century concept. Here is 19th-century version, although it could possibly be more of a birthday note. It sold for $28 in 2011.

Having a “short snorter” is played similarly. Gather your signatures directly onto any piece of currency. This serves as a long-time memento, but also serves as the basis for the bar challenge similar to the later challenge coin. Challenge those to present their “short snorter” and get the first round; if you don’t have it, you pay the first round. By the way, a bit of hard liquor in a shot glass is called a “snort,” so a “short snorter” is a bit less than a full shot glass. Hey, liquor was expensive for a G.I., but it was played for beer, too.

So, how collectible are these curious pieces? Quite, actually. Since their resurgence in the 1990s, virtually every military, government agency, law enforcement and many civilian groups have issued a challenge coin. There are avid collectors and dealers that specialize in sorting out the official challenge coin, those issued by the group it represents, or the “commemorative” ones manufactured by outside companies for resale on a wider scale. Visit the Challenge Coin Association to learn more.

Most challenge coins, whatever its design, can easily be collected in the $10-$30 range. The higher up the chain of command, the higher the value. The highest collectible coins would be for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of the FBI, cabinet secretaries, the commander-in-chief, vice president and so forth, with values starting near $75 to as high as $2,500 or so for the official presidential ones.

A John Wayne-signed $1 silver certificate “short snorter” brought at auction $383.

A detail of the John Wayne “short snorter,” made out to Ken, with “good luck.”

The “short snorter” bills are not particularly scarce. You can easily start a collection of these unique wartime collectibles from about $20 to $50, depending on the number of signatures and the currency used. Finding a bill with a famous signature is the pinnacle find, of course. A John Wayne-signed $1 silver certificate sold for $383.

A 10-Goonie from Midway Island, WWII “short snorter” bill. A. Oexle, who signed above the motto, was the commanding officer of Midway Island at the time of issue.

Midway also issued semiofficial “short snorter” bills. Issued as a souvenir. The pair sold for $500 in 2011 on eBay.

Find a unique bill without a famous signature and that can make the difference, too. A 1945 10 Goony bill issued on Midway Island and signed by its commanding officer brought $500 at auction because of the limited release of the denomination. Many times, “short snorters” were taped together to create a “long short snorter” and that can add historic as well as a higher collectible value, too.

To learn more about the “short snorter” and its collectibility you have been issued orders to visit The Short Snorter Project.

The challenge coin and the “short snorter” are both wonderful keepsakes and one of the few collectibles where their utilitarian purpose is enhanced by its practical application—to get a free round at the closest pub. Who said working for Uncle Sam was all work and no play?


Tom Carrier is a general Worthologist, with an expertise in a wide variety of subjects, including vexillology, or the study of flags.

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2 Comments

  1. So, how collectible are these curious pieces? Quite, actually. Since their resurgence in the 1990s, virtually every military, government agency, law enforcement and many civilian groups have issued a challenge coin.

    • Tom Carrier says:

      Robert:

      They can be quite valuable indeed, but be aware that many of the agency and even military challenge coins are made by outside companies to be sold commercially to anyone, not just to the unit themselves.

      These ‘commemoratives’ have half the value of the official ones at least. Always be concerned about the provenance of any challenge coin by asking where it came from originally.

      Tom Carrier
      Worthologist