What is a half-dollar made of? The half-dollar coin has been around for over 200 years, but what exactly goes into making these large silver-colored coins? If you’re curious about half-dollar composition and want to know what metals they contain, you’ve come to the right place.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Modern half-dollars contain an outer cladding of 75% copper and 25% nickel, with a pure copper core in the middle. Earlier half dollars contained silver and even a small amount of gold.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the complete half-dollar ingredient list over time, including how their metal composition and purity have changed from the early 1800s to today.

Origins and Early Composition of the Half Dollar (1794-1964)

First Half Dollars (1794-1836) – 89.24% Silver, 10.76% Copper

The very first half dollar coins were minted in 1794, composed of 89.24% silver and 10.76% copper. These early half dollars, authorized under the Coinage Act of 1792, were made of sterling silver – a term meaning at least 92.5% purity.

However, the early Philadelphia Mint had difficulties achieving that purity level consistently.

The first half dollars featured a bust of Lady Liberty on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. The Lady Liberty image reflected the young nation’s pursuit of freedom and democracy. She was depicted wearing a Phrygian cap, which was a symbol of these ideals originating from ancient Greece and Rome.

These early half-dollars measured 32-33 mm in diameter, significantly larger than today’s 30.61 mm. Their extra weight and size gave rise to the term “heavyweight money.” Their value was based on their intrinsic silver content rather than any nominal face value.

The Capped Bust half dollars were minted starting in 1807, replacing Lady Liberty with an image of Liberty wearing a cap. The coin’s silver purity was boosted to 89.24% at this time, with 10.76% copper – a composition that would continue unchanged for nearly 60 years of the half-dollar’s existence.

Seated Liberty & Early 20th Century Half Dollars (1839-1964) – 90% Silver, 10% Copper

In 1839, the half dollar underwent a significant redesign with the new Seated Liberty image, which was used until 1891. This version depicted Liberty in a seated position, holding a shield and arrow. The obverse retained the Capped Bust design until mid-1839 when new Seated Liberty imagery was added there as well.

This updated Seated Liberty half-dollar now contained 90% silver and 10% copper – a slight boost in silver purity over earlier versions. However, its weight was reduced to only 13.36 grams, and diameter down to 30 mm, much closer to today’s specifications.

Various adaptations of the Seated Liberty design appeared over the following decades. One notable version starting in 1892 was the Barber Half Dollar, named after its designer Charles Barber. This version featured Liberty’s head facing right on the obverse, replacing the full seated image.

In the early 20th century, both the Walking Liberty half-dollar (1916-1947) and Franklin half-dollar (1948-1963) retained the same 90% silver and 10% copper composition. After decades of consistency, major composition changes were just around the corner with the Coinage Act of 1965.

Year Range Silver % Copper %
1794-1836 89.24% 10.76%
1839-1964 90% 10%

Transition to Clad Half Dollars (1965-1970)

40% Silver Composition

In 1965, the composition of half dollars changed from 90% silver and 10% copper to a new combination of 40% silver and 60% copper. This change was authorized by the Coinage Act of 1965, which aimed to reduce rising silver demand amidst coin shortages.

The 40% silver composition was a transitionary measure before half dollars became completely clad.

These new 1965-1970 half dollars with 40% silver are sometimes called “sandwich” coins. The outer layers were 80% silver and 20% copper, enclosing a core of 21% silver and 79% copper. This configuration gave the coins a distinctive appearance while conserving silver content.

Transition to Copper-Nickel Clad

Beginning in 1971, the half-dollar transitioned to a copper-nickel-clad composition with outer layers of 75% copper and 25% nickel. These outer clad layers enclosed a pure copper core. This new cupronickel-clad composition matched the lower-denomination coins already in circulation and remains the standard today.

The change eliminated silver from circulating half dollars and ended a longstanding tradition. Nonetheless, it made economic sense given rising silver prices. The copper-nickel-clad composition created a more durable and cost-effective coin for high-volume circulation.

During the 1965-1970 transition period, the U.S. Mint produced 2.6 billion 40% silver half-dollars alongside older 90% silver versions and new copper-nickel types. This high output shows the scale of the changeover to clad coinage before the copper-nickel standard was fully adopted in 1971.

Modern Cupronickel Clad Half Dollars (1971-Present)

Outer 75% Copper/25% Nickel Cladding

The current half-dollar coins produced by the U.S. Mint feature an outer cladding composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel. This cladding was introduced in 1971 when the Mint transitioned to using a copper-nickel alloy instead of silver for the outer layers of the half-dollar.

The reason for switching to a clad composition was to reduce rising production costs. With the Coinage Act of 1965, the price of silver had been increasing to the point that the bullion value of U.S. silver coins surpassed their face values.

Cladding the coin’s exterior with a cheaper copper-nickel alloy helped offset these costs while still maintaining the traditional size and weight of the half-dollar.

The copper-nickel cladding applies to the outer 75% thickness of the coin, with the inner core making up the remaining 25% thickness. At 0.085 inches thick per cladding layer, the two clad layers equate to 75% of the coin’s 0.204-inch total thickness.

This thickness is consistent across all half-dollar types produced since 1971.

Solid Copper Core

Making up that remaining 25% interior thickness of modern half dollars is a solid pure copper core. The copper core provides significant durability, hardness, and weight to help in the coin’s manufacturability and use in commerce.

Based on the half-dollar’s weight of 11.34 grams and dimensions, the solid copper core likely weighs approximately 3.5 grams. This copper purity and weight help provide the traditional “heft” people expect when using half dollars, making them more difficult to counterfeit.

Additionally, the durable copper interior assists in the coin blank production process. It allows the blanks to withstand the high-pressure striking required to impart the coin’s relief design and edge lettering without compromising the coin’s shape or details.

The copper core also contributes to the modern half dollar’s distinctive “ring” when dropped. This resonant tone is harder to replicate than surface details, providing another layer of counterfeit protection.

Finally, the copper interior assures the coin’s electromagnetic signature will be accurately read by vending machines and coin acceptors. Those devices rely largely on detecting copper, ensuring the U.S. half dollar remains usable in commerce despite its decreasing circulation.

Modern U.S. Half Dollar Construction  
Total Thickness: 0.204 inches
Clad Layers (75%): 2 x 0.085 inches
Copper Core (25%): 0.044 inches

Special Collectible Edition Half Dollar Compositions

90% Silver Proof Sets

The United States Mint has issued many special 90% fine silver proof half-dollar coins as parts of limited edition proof sets. These sets often commemorate important events, people, or institutions in American history.

For example, in 1982 and 1983, the Mint released George Washington 250th Anniversary proof sets featuring a 90% silver half-dollar with Washington’s profile.

More recently in 2022, the Mint released a 90% silver proof half-dollar honoring poet Maya Angelou as part of the American Women Quarters proof set. The set has a limited mintage of 225,000 and has already sold out on the Mint’s website.

Collectors appreciate these sets for both their silver content and numismatic value.

90% Gold Commemorative Coins

While most commemorative half-dollars contain silver, some special editions have been minted in 90% pure gold! These coins celebrate the most monumental events and people in American history.

For instance, in 2015 the U.S. Mint issued two $50 face-value 24-karat gold coins honoring the 50th anniversary of the coinage of the Kennedy half dollar. Minted in proof and uncirculated versions, these coins pay tribute to President John F. Kennedy with stunning gold interpretations of the iconic 1964 silver Kennedy half-dollar design.

Fine Silver Numismatic Releases

In 2006, the Mint began producing annual uncirculated half-dollar coins with a unique reverse design under the American Silver Eagle Program. Containing one troy ounce of 99.9% fine silver, these stunning coins feature notable designs like:

  • The 2018 World War I Centennial Silver Half Dollar with a soldier carrying the colors
  • The 2019 San Antonio Missions National Historical Park Half Dollar depicts elements of Spanish colonial architecture
  • The 2020 Weir Farm National Historic Site Half Dollar with an artist painting en plein air

With changing annual designs and one of the highest silver purities of any U.S. Mint releases, these half dollars are extremely popular with silver investors and collectors alike searching for beautiful fine silver coins.

How to Tell What Metals Your Half Dollar Contains

Date and Mint Markings

The date and mint mark stamped on a half-dollar can provide clues about its metallic composition. Half dollars minted before 1965 contain 90% silver, while those from 1965-1970 contain 40% silver. Coins dated 1971 or later contain no silver.

Checking the mint mark letter under the year can also indicate silver content – coins marked with a D (Denver Mint) or S (San Francisco Mint) tend to have more silver.

Visual Inspection of Color/Surface

A visual inspection of a half dollar can reveal a lot about its metal content. Pre-1965 half dollars exhibiting a grayish color and smooth, frosty surface likely contain 90% silver. Copper-nickel-clad halves from 1971 onward will show a golden shine.

Mid-1960s transitional coins with 40% silver have a paler whitish appearance in between. Signs of wear, scratches, or reddish spots suggest a lack of silver. Magnifying the coin will show the layering in copper-nickel clads.

Ping Test for Silver Content

The ‘ping test’ uses sound to estimate silver purity. Balancing a half dollar on your fingertip and tapping it to hear the “ping” indicates metals. A high-pitched bell ring points to 90% silver, while a dull thud is more suggestive of a base metal coin.

It takes practice to interpret ping test results accurately. This simple manual test can complement visual inspection but is not foolproof.

Coin Certification for Authentication

Professional coin grading services like PCGS or NGC provide authoritative certification of half-dollar silver and metal purity content. Their experts use advanced testing methods combined with numismatic knowledge to authenticate coins and grade their condition. Fees start at around $20 per coin.

Grading documents are more reliable than home tests for selling or insuring rare vintage half dollars worth over $500. For common circulation coins, visual checks or a basic ping test often suffice.

What Is A Half-Dollar Made Of – Conclusion

As we’ve explored, half dollars have been made from a variety of metal compositions over their more than 200-year history, from nearly pure silver to layered copper nickel. While modern clad halves have little intrinsic value, earlier silver issues and special commemorative releases remain popular with collectors.

Knowing the year, visual appearance, sound, and certification details can help you identify what your half-dollar is made of. With this knowledge in hand, you can better appreciate these hefty fifty-cent pieces and the fascinating evolution of their metallic content over the decades.

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