How rare are half dollar coins? With over 1 billion half dollar coins minted every year by the U.S. treasury, you may be wondering if these medium-sized coins are actually considered rare.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: While half dollars are still produced annually, they are seldom used in everyday commerce, making circulation issues fairly uncommon to find in your pocket change.
This scarcity means that some dates and mints can be quite valuable to collectors. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore everything you need to know about half dollar rarity.
Mintages and Production History
When Half Dollars Were First Introduced
The first half dollar coins were minted in 1794, three years after decimal U.S. currency was first authorized. Early half dollars featured depictions of Liberty and an eagle on the reverse. Mintage was sporadic in the early 19th century, with no half dollars struck from 1804 to 1831.
Several key dates with low mintages from this early period, like the 1796 and 1797 half dollars, are highly sought after by collectors today.
Key Dates With Low Mintage
In addition to low mintage coins from the late 1700s, there are several other half dollar key dates that had limited production numbers. These include:
- 1838-O: Only 20 struck at the New Orleans mint
- 1892-O: Just 390,000 minted at New Orleans
- 1915: Only 138,000 half dollars produced
- 1921: Low mintage of just 246,000
These dates are scarce in any condition and expensive for coin collectors to acquire, with the 1921 half dollar worth over $9,000 in well-preserved uncirculated condition.
Decline in Circulation and Usage
Although half dollars were heavily used in commerce for many decades, their popularity started to decline in the second half of the 20th century. This was driven by factors like the removal of silver from circulating coinage in 1965 and growing preference for smaller denominations in everyday cash transactions.
A 2010 Federal Reserve study found that half dollars represented just 1% of U.S. coin production in recent years. Vending machines typically do not accept half dollar coins and many customers do not use them.
Today, half dollars see occasional circulation but serve more as collector’s items than an everyday medium of exchange.
Grading and Condition
Condition’s Impact on Value and Rarity
The condition of a half dollar coin plays a pivotal role in determining its value and rarity. Collector coins are graded on a numeric scale from 1 to 70, with 70 representing a perfect uncirculated specimen.
As the grade decreases, more wear and tear is present, negatively impacting the coin’s eye appeal and market value. According to the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), an extremely rare 1895-O half dollar coin sold for $51,750 in an MS67 grade.
The same coin in a lower MS64 grade sells for around $25,000. Clearly, tiny differences in preservation make a world of difference.
While lower-grade circulated half dollars are plentiful, coins grading MS65 and higher are considered condition rarities. Only a tiny fraction of a coin issue will survive in Gem uncirculated condition or better. This scarcity exponentially increases the value compared to more worn specimens.
For example, a common 1921 half dollar in G4 condition may sell for $15. But an MS66 example traded for $12,000 in a 2022 Heritage Auctions sale. Confirming rarity, PCGS has graded only 15 1921 halves at this lofty grade level.
Finding Uncirculated Specimens
Uncirculated half dollars with no wear are the pinnacle of numismatic condition. But they can be extraordinarily difficult to find, especially for earlier dates. Mint state coins saw little circulation and were carefully preserved to retain their original luster and texture.
A key source is old bank hoards stored in vaults for decades before being reconciled and released. One famous hoard was the 1962–1963 Philadelphia hoard, which yielded over 2,000 brilliant uncirculated Franklin and Walking Liberty half dollars.
For modern issues still in production, uncirculated rolls and bags can sometimes be obtained straight from a bank. However, finding older dates in mint condition requires checking dealer inventory at coin shows, auctions, or certified holder services like PCGS and NGC.
The thrill of the hunt makes locating that elusive MS65 century-old Barber half dollar in the original mint bag a highly prized numismatic achievement.
Popular Half Dollar Series
Early Walking Liberty (1916-1947)
The Walking Liberty half dollar is considered one of the most beautiful U.S. coins ever minted. Designed by Adolph A. Weinman, the obverse depicts a full-length figure of Liberty draped in an American flag and walking toward the dawn of a new day with her right hand extended.
Minted from 1916 to 1947, these 90% silver coins are highly sought after by collectors today for their stunning design and silver content.
Key dates in the Walking Liberty half dollar series with lower mintages include the 1916, 1921, and 1938 coins. According to the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), there are only an estimated 20,000 or fewer mint state examples known of the 1921 half, making it particularly scarce and valuable.
High demand from collectors has driven the 1921 to trade for upwards of $9,000 in mint condition.
Franklin Half Dollars (1948-1963)
With the country recovering after World War II, the Treasury Department sponsored a design competition in 1947 to create a new half dollar to honor Founding Father Benjamin Franklin. Frank Gasparro’s winning design featured a bust of Franklin on the obverse and the Liberty Bell on the reverse.
Struck in 90% silver, the Franklin half dollar was produced from 1948 to 1963.
While not considered rare in lower grades, choice uncirculated examples with deep mirrored fields are scarce to find from the Philadelphia and Denver Mints for many dates in this series. The final year 1963 is popular as the last 90% silver half dollar from the U.S. Mint.
Nearly 430 million were produced across both mints.
Kennedy Half Dollars (1964-Date)
Following the national tragedy of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, Congress authorized a new half dollar design to memorialize the fallen leader. The Kennedy half dollar, featuring an obverse portrait designed by Gilroy Roberts based on Kennedy’s presidential medal, started production in 1964.
Through 1970 the coins contained 40% silver, before being changed to a copper-nickel clad composition.
While mintages were immense, most Kennedy halves found in pocket change are quite worn. Identifying better dates and well-struck, lustrous examples is important. Notable condition rarities include 1970-D and 1971-D half dollars, with an estimated few thousand in true mint state known from each Denver mint facility that year.
|Average Price in MS65 Grade
Auction Prices and Rarity Ratings
Half Dollars Commands Strong Premiums in Mint State
Half dollar coins, especially those in pristine mint condition, tend to sell for impressive premiums at auction. According to the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation’s Price Guide, common date Walking Liberty half dollars graded MS-65 can sell for around $200-300.
More rare dates like the 1921-D or 1938-D in the same grade range from $700-1,200. For the Franklin half series, prices in MS-65 start around $100 for common dates and climb to $4,000-8,000 for better dates like the 1953-S.
The Kennedy half dollar series sees even stronger demand. A random MS-65 common date will still sell for $80-120 even with abundant supplies available. Scarcer issues like the 1970-D commands over $6,000 in this grade.
Proof Kennedy halves are also popular with collectors, with prices easily exceeding $100 even for relatively available issues.
Condition Census Rarity Ratings
The PCGS Set Registry utilizes a condition census rarity rating to convey just how rare a coin is within the context of others graded. For example, a coin graded MS-65 with a condition census rating of 1 means it is the finest known example of that date and mintmark combination.
Conversely, a rating of 75 would indicate there are 74 coins graded higher. As you might imagine, coins with a low condition census rating tend to sell for substantial premiums over more available dates.
While most coin dates have population reports extending well up into the MS-63 to MS-66 range, coins at the very top of the condition census are extraordinarily rare. A 1911-D half dollar graded MS-68 with a condition census of 1, for example, sold for nearly $200,000 in 2015!
Where to Find Rare Half Dollar Coins
Coin Shows and Auctions
Coin shows provide numismatists and collectors a centralized event to buy, sell, trade, and view rare coins. According to the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS), over 100 major U.S. coin shows are held annually. Most occur on weekends in convention centers or hotels.
Coin auctions offer certified rare coins for bidding onsite or online. Major auction houses conducting coin sales include Heritage Auctions, Stack’s Bowers, and David Lawrence Rare Coins. Upcoming coin auction schedules and inventory are viewable on their websites.
Specialty Dealers and Collectors
Many online dealers sell half dollar coins, but those specializing in classic commemorative issues often have the rarest dates and grades. Reputable shops known for locating key date Walking Liberty, Franklin, and Kennedy half dollars include NGC’s Coin Dealer Locator.
Networking among fellow numismatists and coin club members may uncover a rare half dollar for trade or sale. The American Numismatic Association (ANA), founded in 1891 with over 28,000 members, lists local and regional coin clubs across America.
Collectors may also complete their half dollar set by trading duplicates. For example, the Dallas Coin Club‘s bourse floor enables buying, selling, and trading coins between members during meetings. Such networking provides collectors access to fresh inventory not available elsewhere.
How Rare Are Half Dollar Coins – Conclusion
While half dollars may seem common, many dates and mintmarks are scarce, especially in pristine uncirculated condition. This scarcity continues to drive collector demand.
Understanding important factors like mintage, grading, series popularity, and auction records is key to recognizing truly rare half dollar coins with strong value potential.