Q. David Bowers (edited and updated by Mike Sherman): The Draped Bust style is believed to have been the work of Robert Scot, who followed the proposal make by artist Gilbert Stuart. The obverse depicts Liberty with flowing hair, a ribbon behind her head, with drapery covering her plunging neckline. LIBERTY is above and the date is below. 1796 half dimes have eight stars to the left and seven to the right on the obverse, while those dated 1797 come in three variations, with a total of 13, 15 of 16 stars. The reverse features an open wreath enclosing a small eagle perched on a cloud, the eagle being smaller in size than that used in 1794-95, and with the cloud more pronounced and higher above the wreath bow. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounds. Again, there is no indication of value or denomination.
All half dimes of this design type are scarce. Most often encountered are pieces in lower grades from About Good through Fine. Very Fine pieces are elusive, Extremely Fine coins are scarce and those in AU or better preservation are rare and seldom seen. In the 1960s, when James F. Ruddy was gathering photographs for his Photograde book, he found that examples of this half dime type were among the most difficult to locate. As is true of other early silver coins, pieces are apt to have mint caused adjustment marks and to be weakly struck in certain areas, particularly at the center of the eagle on the reverse.
The half dimes of the 1800-1805 years continued the Draped Bust obverse used earlier in 1796-1797, except the stars beginning in 1800 have been standardized to seven left and six right. The reverse is of the Heraldic Eagle style adopted from the Great Seal of the United States and used beginning in the preceding decade on certain other silver denominations. At the center is an eagle with a shield on its breast, holding in its beak a ribbon inscribed E PLURIBUS UNUM and grasping in its talon a bundle of arrows and an olive branch. Above the eagle is an arc of clouds under which is a group of stars. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA surrounds. No mark of denomination or value appears on the coin.
Half dimes of this era are scarce, with 1802 being a prime rarity. Most surviving examples of various 1800-1805 dates are seen in lower ranges of condition, from About Good to Very Good or so. Fine specimens are not easy to locate, Very Fine pieces are still more elusive, and Extremely Fine coins are rare. Strictly Uncirculated pieces are extremely rare. Those that do come on the market are apt to be dated 1800. Uncirculated specimens dated 1801, 1802, 1803 and 1805 are exceedingly rare or non-existent. (No pieces were coined in 1804.)
Nearly all known specimens exhibit a degree of light striking in one area or another, particularly on the high points of Liberty’s hair, among the obverse stars, and on the reverse among the stars above the eagle. Such striking characteristics are to be expected, and a numismatist seeking a perfectly struck, extremely sharp example in a high grade is apt to never encounter such a coin.
-- Reprinted with permission from "United States Coins by Design Types - An Action Guide for the Collector and Investor" by Q. David Bowers