All known examples of this extremely rare issue are in grades of Very Good at the top down to Poor-1. The definition from wear is that of a Good or slightly finer coin with most of Liberty's head and the date clearly defined. On the reverse portions of the legends and wreath and fraction are clear but a number of moderate dents have slightly bent the flan long ago with additional circulation wear occurring in an uneven fashion on the devices because of this situation. The dents are mostly shallow, dull and blend into the fields and devices to a larger degree than usually seen. Perfectly even dark chocolate to steel brown on the obverse and reverse, and remarkably free of surface pitting from corrosion or environmental damage. While obviously less than perfect, the surfaces are perfectly acceptable given the monumental rarity of this issue and the general smooth nature of the color--one can easily imagine additional problems that are not present here so common to half cents.
In the recent Copper Quotes by Robinson (April 30, 2011) the Condition Census notes an even dozen of these Gripped Edge pieces reported, reading from the highest grade to lowest, 8, 8, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 5, 3, 2, 1. The present example is probably considered a 3 or 2 coin although the grade matters much less than simply having an example. Undoubtedly the finer known pieces are locked away in advanced variety or Guide Book collections that seldom come up for sale or auction. Furthermore, we suspect that most of the pieces noted have some degree of problems as so commonly found on Liberty Cap half cents of modest grades. PCGS has certified only 3 examples as VG-10, G-6 and AG-3 while NGC has not certified any of this subvariety in their Census giving further indication that of the surviving dozen examples of the famed "Gripped Edge" variety. Most seen are less than wholesome and will not be certified in graded holders due to surface problems.
What brought about the vertical "grips" or reed marks on the edge begs scrutiny, clearly these are intended and imparted most likely by some form of collar or less likely by the Castaing machine that was used to letter the edges of the silver coinage. Gold coinage of this period had reeds imparted by a collar during the striking process. Another formidable edge variant is the "Reeded Edge" variety 1795 Large Cents of the Sheldon-79 variety. Not quite a dozen of these are now known, and one of the more desirable examples (still in Very Good technical grade) was bid to well north of $1 million in the past few years. These reeds or grips were likely imparted to the coins as some kind of experiment employing a new collar design, created in extremely limited numbers. Historically copper coins were not given reeds or lettering on the edge as shavers and the ungodly did not generally try to steal a shaving of copper off such coins and spend the coin for full face value, while the edge reeding or lettering process was always done on silver or gold coins. Copper coin reeding was ignored due to the fact that copper was not worth the trouble to shave off.
Apparently the "low heads" half cents of 1797 were struck late in the period, possibly as late as early 1800 as Breen discusses in his book on Half Cents. Given the numbers of "spoiled cent" stock used this would arguably make sense as so few 1800 dated half cents show evidence of cent stock undertype. These Gripped Edge pieces were struck on rolled down (thinned) cent planchets at a time where anything copper was pressed into coinage as the need for small change was great.
Confirming the great rarity of these Gripped Edge half cents is the fact that noted expert Jules Reiver did not have an example in his vast collection. This edge variant was discovered in the 19th Century and one was offered in the H. Rogers Collection sold by S. K. Harzfeld, January 24-25, 1881, lot 281. Another was offered in the great Stickney Collection of 1907. The only recent offering was for a Good-6 (PCGS) coin from the Davy Collection sold by Ira and Larry Goldberg last year as lot #183 for $195,500 on an estimate of $30,000 an up. While that example lacks the dents of the present offering, the technical grade is not too far apart, and a specialist who desires an example had best obtain one when available. Good Details.