Though challenge coins have been around for a long time not all of them are worthy of being in your collection. There are so many types of coins to choose from military, federal agencies, to custom celebrations for kindergarten events. Each person has a specific reason for starting his or her collection to begin with. Maybe you were an Airman, Soldier, Seaman, or Marine and you want something that represents your beliefs and places you may have worked or traveled in your time. Finding what is right for you is sometimes very easy and even more so you are ready to start seeing what's out there.
To begin your search the easiest place to start looking are at the physical installations that might be in your area. You can easily go down to their gift shops and see what is put out on the shelves. These coins are general coins that everyone has access to and most often had a high mint number, say about 10,000 coins made. This is for someone not really into collecting and more so wants a souvenir from where they were. These coins will never gain value for anything then what they were sold for on the shelf and more than likely lose value over time.
They next place you could also start on an auction site. Often times you will find vast amounts for sales here from other veterans and collectors alike. You can find great deals here or terrible ones if you do not investigate properly. There are many sellers on auctions that are selling the same coins found in the installations stores for higher prices or duplications that they are not disclosing. In rare cases you can hit gold mines with certain sellers that are offering rare or low mint count coins for next to nothing. Even better is widows or relatives of ex-service members that have passed that are selling lots for cheap because they know nothing about what they really have.
The third area you can go hunting once have discovered the first two ways to find coins is by going to websites that specialize in selling and / or making coins. This part is not always for a novice though. You need to discover what these sites have to offer and understand how and why they are doing what they are doing. Look for things like forums, information, how big the store is, and most of all who is running these sites. Any auction seller can make a site and sell you coins, but they still will not discriminate what you are getting. Let's look at sites that specialize for a minute.
When you find that special site, look for a forum that you can reap information and build relationships with other collectors so you can build knowledge. You should be able to feel comfortable with the site and its products. Other things you want to know is how long they have been around, what do other collector's think of its authority level in the field, will it be around for the long haul, and do they distinguish what each product really is. Only a few of these sites exist with everything I mentioned. Do some surfing in your favorite search engine to discover the small niche community out there and get to know the site you want to give your money or time to.
The last thing I want to touch on custom or low mint count coins. Some sites make general topic coins but do it in vast numbers. These coins are like the installation coins that never build value. You need to take time and look for custom coins that only had 50-500 coins made to expect a really good return or value on your collection. It's more than the low count though. Everyone can put a low quality coin together and sell it. You need to get to know your designer and his or her quality of design when they make a coin. Take you time and hunt down your designers' information and history and see lots of samples of their work before you become a regular customer.
To summarize finding coins in the open market place you need to do your homework and become a member of a community involved in trading, buying, or selling challenge coins. Not only can you gain better knowledge on your hobby, but make wonderful friends in the mean time. Before you know it, you will find yourself inside one of the best emerging collecting areas in the world. Each day new coins are being introduced and you need to be in there getting the first copies of a brand new coin to show off to friends and collectors.