History before WW1
The basis for this medal was made in 1789 in the form of the Ehren-Denkmünze für Tapferkeit (honor remembrance coin for bravery) by the Habsburg emperor Joseph II. In its original form it had two classes, gold and silver, for ranks below officer who had distinguished themselves in combat. In 1809 By Emperor Franz II the form was changed to make it a wearable medal that was also renamed in Tapferkeitsmedaille, Bravery Medal. Then again in 1848 the silver class was split into two classes. Next to the original Silver first class (40mm in diameter) a second class was added that was smaller in size (31mm in diameter). Emperor Franz-Joseph I added in Februari 1915 a Bronze class with the same size as the silver medal 2nd class (also 31mm in diameter). A last change was made by Emperor Karl in 1917 by making the Golden class and the Silver 1st class medal available to officers. Until then officers were expected to show bravery as part of their regular work and had no specific gallantry medals apart from the Military Maria Theresia order that was only very rarely awarded for extreme examples of gallantry. Most officers received the regular medals that were available for officers that were awarded for bravery but also other other distinguished services.
In all these periods the medal would have the ruling Emperor of that moment on the observe and Der Tapferkeit (The Bravery) on the reverse. Karl would change the text on the reverse to the Latin text “FORTITVDINI” as that language was neutral in an empire where the first languange of many people was not German.
The Bravery medal in WW1
With two emperors during the war there were also two versions of all medals from gold to bronze with either Franz Joseph and from 1917 onward Karl on the observe of the medal. In the beginning of the war also examples with a younger version of FJ were still awarded as far as they were still available. Franz Joseph had 3 versions of his head on the medals during his very long reign. The third version was the regular one for WW1 but the 2nd and even the 1st version could still be awarded if available. This was mainly the case with early awards of the Golden Bravery Medal.
What was new in WW1 was that all version could be worn next to each other. Before that period only the highest award of the medal would have been worn. For each next award in the same class a clasp (introduced in October 1915) could be worn on the medal ribbon with 4 bars as the maximum (which obviously was extremely rare in any class)
As officers also could get an award of the Golden and 1st class Silver medal a difference had to be made which was done in the form of a capital K letter on the triangular ribbon. These existed in both gold (gilded) and silver.
As all officers in training went through the non-commissioned ranks before becoming commissioned they were during this training period also eligible for the nco Bravery medals. So in WW1 Austro-Hungarian officers groups often Bravery medals will be found. This is just a sign that the officers was not yet commissioned when he received the medal. The ones with the K on the ribbon are much rarer.
The winners of the Gold and both classes of Silver medals also received an additional payment. The Bronze class was excluded from this so it was also of financial interest to soldiers to receive the highest possible level of bravery medal as the payment was more for the higher classes. Only the highest level was paid and multiple awards did not add to the total amount received.
Before WW1 all medals would have a fixed eye for the ribbon. Only during the war this was replaced with the more standard moveable eye for the ribbon fixture. The only exception to this would be the Golden Bravery Medal that would remain using the fixed (Henkelöse) version. This makes it relatively easy to recognize the non official version of the Golden version. Private/non-official versions of all medals would be made during and after the war. These are not “fake” but bought examples of these medals. Especially real Golden Bravery Medals were often sold for the gold value in the post war period and replaced with a privately purchased gilded version.
The official versions can also be recognized by the name of the artist below the head of the Emperor. On most private versions this name was not copied! Three names can be found. Two for the FJ versions: Tautenheyn and Leisek. The Karl versions all have Kautsch.
From 1916 onward the Golden version became to expensive to be awarded. A gilded bronze version was made that would have BRONZE stamped in the rim of the medal. These medals were planned to be exchanged for real gold after the war. As the war was lost this never happened nor would the winners get their additional payment for the new Governments in the countries that would come into being after the war. Karl was on the front often, also for award ceremonies. He only handed out real gold versions. These are the rarest variation of the Golden Bravery Medal.
It was also possible to replace the golden medal when lost or to get a second version. These are marked with the HMA (Hauptmunzamt) stamp next to the material stamp.
Reference: Steiner, J.C. (2010) Heldenwerk 1914-1918. Vienna, Austria