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What are Half-Dollar Coins?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 17, 2024
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In the US, half-dollar coins may also be called a fifty-cent piece. These types of coins have been a part of American currency since a short time after the United States gained independence and established its own government. Records of past currency types show that the first half-dollar coins were minted in 1794, though the initial design was quickly abandoned for a coin that showed a draped bust on the front and an eagle on the back. Overall, there have been eight different designs, and the coins have been made in several different types of metals.

It was common until fairly recently for half-dollar coins to be made primarily of silver. The value of the silver used to make the coin, however, soon outpaced the value of the coin and many people either started melting it down or saving it for the value of the silver. By the late 1960s, the US sought to make a less expensive version that would actually be used as a coin. Starting in 1971, the half-dollar coin was made only of copper and a copper nickel alloy called cupronickel.

Half-dollar coins currently are not used that often. Even though most change drawers in cash registers have a half dollar section, many cashiers might not be able to identify them, and most stores with cash registers store other things in that section. Additionally, there are certain things like parking meters, pay telephones, and vending machines, which do not accept them.

Casinos, however, are one exception. Some slot machines may still accept a half-dollar coin, and they may be used as antes in poker. Usually, however, these coins don’t circulate very frequently, though banks do have them and it's possible to ask for them.

On the other hand, a person who happens to be a magician might want a supply of half-dollar coins. With a diameter over an inch (2.54 cm), they are considered ideal for coin magic tricks, and they’re certainly more visible for magic shows than are quarters. Magicians aren’t the only people who might be interested in these coins. Many people like to possess one or two of these, however, perhaps either because they are unique, or because the 1964 version honors President Kennedy.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By jcallicott — On Feb 13, 2011

Half-dollar coins were not cupronickel until 1971. Between 1965 and 1970, they were silver-clad coins: they had an inner core of 79 percent copper and 21 percent silver, with an outer covering of 80 percent silver and 20 percent copper. The net result was a coin containing 40 percent silver.

As a result, half dollars dated 1965-1970 are worth saving; their silver content exceeds their face value, though nowhere near as much as their counterparts dated 1964. By 1970, the price of silver was rising so much that even 40 percent silver coins were not profitable for the U.S. Mint. In 1971, the composition of the half-dollar was changed to cupronickel.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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