Half dollar coins have been produced every year since the conception of the United States Mint in 1794. Sometimes referred to as the fifty-cent piece, the only other U.S. coin that has been minted as consistently is the cent.
Half-dollar coins saw heavy use, particularly in the first half of the twentieth century. For many years, they were commonly used in casinos. Rolls of half dollars may still be kept on hand in cardrooms for games requiring 50-cent antes or bring-in bets, for dealers to pay winning naturals in blackjack, or where the house collects a rake in increments. Additionally, some concession vendors at sporting events distribute half-dollar coins as change for convenience.
By the early 1960s, the rising price of silver was nearing the point where the bullion value of U.S. silver coins would exceed face value. In 1965, the U.S. introduced layered composition coins made of a copper core laminated between two cupro-nickel outer faces. The silver content of dimes and quarters was totally eliminated, but the Kennedy half dollar composition still contained silver (reduced from 90 to 40 percent) from 1965 to 1970.
The 1964 Kennedy half dollars were removed from circulation by the public for sentimental reasons. Those issued through the end of the 1960s were hoarded as the only precious metal U.S. coins remaining in production, and as the price of silver continued to rise, pre-1964 halves disappeared from circulation as well. By the time that the coin’s composition was changed to match that of the clad dimes and quarters in 1971, both businesses and the public had adapted to a country in which the half dollar did not generally circulate. The quarter took over the half’s role as the highest-value component of change.
Most coins enter circulation through the change drawers of businesses. Few businesses stock their change drawers with half dollars, and many banks do not stock them or hand them out as normal business practice, so the coins do not see much circulation.
Most U.S. vending machines do not accept half dollars, nor do payphones, which further curtails their circulation; however, most sleight of hand magicians specializing in coin magic around the world prefer the half dollar for its size and weight, and it is the most common denomination used for U.S. commemorative coins.
Since 2002, half dollars have been minted only for collectors, due to large Federal Reserve and government inventories on hand of pre-2001 pieces; this is mostly due to lack of demand and large quantity returns from casino slot machines that now operate “coinless”. If and when the reserve supply runs low, the mint will again fill orders for circulation half dollars. It took about 18 years (1981–1999) for the large inventory stockpile of a similar low-demand circulation coin, the $1 coin, to reach reserve levels low enough to again produce circulation pieces. Modern-date half dollars can be purchased in proof sets, mint sets, rolls, and bags from the U.S. Mint, and existing inventory circulation pieces can be ordered through most US banks. All collector issues since 2001 have had much lower mintages than in previous years. Although intended only for collectors, these post-2001 half dollars sometimes find their way into circulation.
Silver half dollars
- Flowing Hair 1794–1795
- Draped Bust 1796–1807
- Draped Bust, Small Eagle 1796–1797
- Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle 1801–1807
- Capped Bust 1807–1839
- Capped Bust (Large Size), With Motto 1807–1836
- Capped Bust (Small Size), No Motto 1836–1839
- Seated Liberty 1839–1891
- Seated Liberty, No Motto 1839–1866
- Seated Liberty, With Motto 1866–1891
- Barber 1892–1915
- Walking Liberty 1916–1947
- Franklin 1948–1963
- Kennedy 1964 (General circulation issue) (the last 90% silver half-dollar for circulation, contains 0.36169 oz. net silver per coin, or 7.234 oz. silver per roll)
- Kennedy 1992–present (silver proof sets available)
40% silver half dollars
- Kennedy 1965–1969
- Kennedy 1970 (collectors sets only)
- Kennedy 1976 (only collectors sets produced with 40% silver)
- Copper-nickel clad half dollars
- Kennedy 1971–1974, 1977–1986, 1988–2001 (general circulation issues)
- Kennedy 1987, 2002–present (collectors only)
- Kennedy Bicentennial 1975–1976 (all dated 1776–1976.)