By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
Switzerland, a country known today as the land of neutrality, was once one of the world’s most militant cultures, birthplace to some of the most highly valued mercenaries for hundreds of years. These include the famous Swiss Guard of the Pope and the Landsknecht employed by practically every European kingdom from the late 1400s to the early 1600s. These men were so sought after that whole kingdoms went into debt to pay their fees to fight the continental wars of early modern Europe. The French Minister of War the Marquis de Louvois even told King Louis XIV that if the French kings had not hired Swiss mercenaries that they “could pave a road from Paris to Basel with Talers”.
This martial culture was nurtured because the Swiss cantons, or states, were almost constantly at war, both with each other and with large external states. Starting in the early 1500s, many cantons began organizing Schützenfeste, or “Shooting Festivals”, to help hone their shooting skills. This is similar to the British Medieval Archery Law passed by King Henry III in 1252, which stated that all men “between the age of 15 to 60 years old were ordered … to equip themselves with a bow and arrows” and also to practice regularly.
More like a competition than a festival, the Schützenfeste quickly became a staple of Swiss life that persists to the modern day. In fact, these competitions actually included crossbow, as well as early musket shooting.
Not only did these competitions guarantee that Swiss men of fighting age were ready and able to defend their home cantons, but it also enabled them to increase the “monetary value of their military services” and raise badly needed funds. The winner of each Schützenfest was “ultimately recognized as their cantons’ top marksmen” and earned the privilege of participating in an inter-cantonal competition. The champion of this round would be crowned the Schützenkönig or “king of all marksmen”.
In the modern era, shooting has actually become known colloquially as the national sport of Switzerland. During World War II, the commander-in-chief of the Swiss armed forces described the near-constant gunfire heard on Sundays as “peaceful gunfire.” Backing the Swiss connection to guns is the popular saying “Every Swiss enters the world with a rifle!” Many Swiss citizens believed that a rifle is “an outward symbol of the dignity of the citizen [and] of the confidence that the state places in him.”
This relationship with weapons is one of the defining parts of Swiss neutrality. Many Swiss citizens believe that the State’s “neutral but armed state policy”, as well as “the citizen[ry’s] willingness to defend] the country, has “saved its people from an armed conflict on its home soil since 1848.”
While it is exactly when the first Schützenfest was held, crossbow shooting tournaments began in the late 15th century. With a duration of six weeks, the Great Shooting Festival at Zurich of 1504 was perhaps the “biggest international competition of the 16th century.” Over the centuries the cantons held many Schützenfest until in 1824 the first Eidgenössisches Schützenfest, or Swiss Federal Shooting Festival, was organized in Aarau. During this competition, the contestants used percussion cap rifles and fired at targets set “540 shoe lengths” away. These weapons, developed less than five years earlier, were absolutely cutting edge. Awards in this competition included purses of 10,000 francs cash, silver, and other prizes. No medals or jetons were struck for this competition
While the Eidgenössisches Schützenfest is held every five years, each canton holds many smaller annual competitions. Numismatists who collect Swiss Shooting Thalers generally focus on two periods: the historic 1842 to 1939 types and the modern types struck from 1984 to the current day.
Commonly called shooting thalers, many of these coins include the coat of arms of the minting canton as well as depictions of rifles and other shooting equipment. Struck in 1842, one of the early pieces demonstrates this quite well. On the obverse, the Swiss coat of arms is displayed in front of a pair of rifles and four flags. The coin’s reverse shows three coats of arms representing the Graubunden canton.
Interestingly, since this coin was struck before the official unification of Switzerland in 1848, the denomination is 4 Schweizer Franken instead of the Swiss franc. With a mintage of only 6,000 pieces, this type is rare and rather difficult to acquire. When they come up for auction, many routinely sell for $3,000 to $4,000 USD.
Because they were struck to commemorate a specific event, and not meant to circulate as standard currency, many of these early types had very limited mintages and are therefore relatively rare.
For example, the canton of Schwyz struck a 5 franc shooting thaler in 1867 with a limited run of only 8,000 pieces. This shooting thaler was to commemorate that year’s Eidgenössisches Schützenfest. The obverse shows a heroic lion supporting the canton’s coat of arms while the reverse is the Swiss shield superimposed in front of a medieval arms trophy with bladed and firing weapons. In low grade, this type is valued at approximately $150 to $200 and $300 to $600 in high grade.
In 1855, the canton of Solothurn struck the only shooting thaler intended for circulation as legal tender. This type is almost identical to the standard strike 5 franc coins from 1855, except for the edge lettering, which reads EIDGEN. FREISCHIESEN * SOLOTHURN 1855 *. With a mintage of only 3,000 pieces, this type is highly sought after and often commands a premium over many other shooting thalers. One common way to spot counterfeits is the edge lettering. In the authentic official pieces, the word FREISCHIESEN is misspelled. The counterfeit types usually include the correct spelling of FREISCHIESSEN with two s’s. This type usually sells at auction for $2,000 to $3,000 in mid-grade condition and up to $17,000 in high Mint State grades.
The 1863 type, with a similar obverse yet different reverse, was struck for the La Chaux-de-Fonds Eidgenössisches Schützenfest. The reverse design was the new 1857 type Neuchâtel cantonal coat of arms in front of two crossed rifles and two crossed flags.
According to a strict definition of the shooting thaler, these coins were to be silver coins struck in the 5 franc denomination in commemoration of an Eidgenössisches Schützenfest. However, many other coins commemorating Swiss shooting festivals have been struck throughout the years. The modern types are a perfect example of this.
Struck for the 1904 St. Gallen Eidgenössisches Schützenfest, this type has no denomination. Measuring 33 mm, this example is slightly smaller than the standard 37 mm shooting thalers from the mid-to-late 1800s. Slightly less than 5,000 pieces were struck, examples of this type sell for between $75 to $200 in all grades.
Starting in the 1980s and ’90s, Switzerland resumed striking coins of the same weight and fineness as the original shooting thalers. This new group has a denomination of 50 francs and is not intended for circulation. Unlike the earlier series in the 1800s, gold coins of 1,000 and 500 francs were also struck. The 2013 had the lowest mintage of this new silver type with only 1,000 pieces struck. Both the gold and silver types from that year share the same design.
More recently in 2020, the Swiss government postponed the Eidgenössisches Schützenfest due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rescheduled to 2021, the competition was conducted for the first time across the country instead of in only one city due to health risks. COVID-19 also impacted the design of the 2021 shooting thaler. This year’s type is the first to have two coins. Also, the 2021 type has dual dates, 2020 and 2021.
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About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).