The federal state of Switzerland is divided into Swiss cantons, or member states. In the 1800s and early 1900s, these cantons held Shooting Festivals, or "free shoots" tournaments. Originally, these festivals were fundraisers to aid the widows and orphans of the soldiers who had fallen in defense of their country. Shooting halls were erected and prizes were awarded to the sharp shooters.
Although the purpose has changed, the shooting contests continue to this day, now regulated by the federal government. The Swiss are avid supporters of the right to carry arms. Because they do not have an army, they depend on the citizenry for national defense. Recreational shooting is popular, in fact so much so, that the annual Feldschiessen weekend, the largest rifle shooting competition in the world, sees 200,000 in attendance every year. While a large percentage of households contain guns, the murder rate in Switzerland is one of the lowest in the world.
With each shooting festival, a commemorative medal was minted. For the collector, there are two distinct periods to consider when collecting Shooting Festival commemoratives. The first run is from 1842 to 1939. These coins are commonly called Shooting Thalers, and for the most part, are the equivalent in size and metal content to their legal tender counterpart. As such, these coins were circulated outside the festivals, although technically, they are medals. The second period, the modern commemoratives, runs from 1984 to date. These coins are not considered legal tender and were meant to be exchanged only during the festival.
The Swiss Shooting Festival Commemoratives, Circulation Strikes (1842-1939) set in the PCGS Set RegistryTM is composed of 22 issues - one silver 40 Batz, one silver 4 Francs, 17 silver 5 Francs, one silver 10 Francs, and two gold 100 Francs. From 1855 to 1885 the 5 Francs were the same size and had the same silver content as their government issued 5 Francs counterpart. From 1934 to 1939 the size of the coins was reduced and all had legends indicating they could only be redeemed during the Shooting Festival.
The "WJG Swiss Shooting Thalers" set in the Registry, which has won major awards in 2011 and 2012, is nearly complete and has a weighted grade point average of 64.62. This is an accomplishment because a few of these coins are hard to locate in high uncirculated grades. The coins that can be found in high grades are affordable to most collectors and can be purchased in the $100 to $1,000 range. Tougher to find are the early1842-1855 and the 1934 and 1939 100 Francs with prices running upwards of $2,000. In addition, with the exception of the 4 Francs, all of the coins were also struck in Specimen condition. These coins demand a premium over their circulation strike counterparts.
These coins are especially interesting because of their designs. The reverse of the 1842 4 Francs Chur has three oval circles with a goat reared up on hind legs in the center circle and clasped hands in the clouds above the circles. The detail is beautiful.
The 1855 5 Francs Solothurn was the only Shooting Festival commemorative recognized as legal tender. Except for the edge lettering, it was identical in design to the 5 Francs released for circulation.
A number of issues display rifles on the obverse. Such is the case with the smaller sized 1934 B 100 Francs Fribourg. The image is of a soldier in uniform facing left and holding a rifle.
The PCGS Set Registry offers a second set consisting of modern 50 Francs. The Swiss Shooting Festival Commemoratives 50 Francs (1984-present) set currently requires 29 coins. Unlike the Shooting Thaler set which has two gold coins, this set is all silver and much more affordable. Collector Rod Moore has a complete, high grade set registered. The set has won a major award every year since 2010. An interesting back story on the modern commemoratives is that after 1939 no shooting thalers were issued until 1984. Their production resumed due in part to the efforts of a California coin dealer named Richard Nelson, who apparently worked tirelessly to see the medals reinstated.
As with the earlier issues, the modern issues have some wonderful designs. Look at the 1986 50 Francs Appenzell which has a delightful dancing bear on the obverse and a soldier and drum on the reverse.
The beautiful 2010 Aarau issue has a magnificent draped liberty with a lion and shield on the obverse and a shield and a wreath with rifles and gun powder pouches crossed on the bottom to depict a "bow."
Besides the silver 50 Francs, 100, 200, 500 and 1000 Francs in gold were also issued for the present-day Shooting Festivals. Note that the 2013 issue has a lower mintage than earlier years, so expect to pay a premium.
Are you a sharp shooter and up for a challenge? This year's festival will be held this September in Lucerne. If that doesn't appeal to you, perhaps the challenge of assembling a complete set of Swiss Shooting Thalers in high grade is more appealing!