A doubloon is a Spanish gold coin which weighs approximately one ounce (27 grams). Doubloons were widely used as currency in Spain and in Spanish colonies well through the mid-1800s, and they were also common in the American South, a region formerly occupied by Spain. Today, numerous examples of Spanish doubloons from various periods in history can be seen in private collections and museums, and these coins are often extremely valuable, thanks to their historical context.
The word “doubloon” is derived from the Spanish dobla, which means “double,” a reference to the fact that the doubloon was worth twice that of the pistole, the regular Spanish gold coin. Going progressively down the scale of value, the Spaniards also dealt in reales, coins of much smaller denomination. Incidentally, the “pieces of eight” which crop in stories about pirates would have been worth eight reales, or around 1/16 of a doubloon.
Several coins in Spain's history have been referred to as “doubloons,” clouding the definition of this term somewhat. These coins would have fluctuated in value, depending on their weight and the market conditions, and they came decorated with various motifs, depending on when they were produced. Because doubloons were made from solid gold, they had intrinsic value in addition to their face value, which explains why they were a popular target for piracy; pirates could easy use the coins as tender in many regions, or melt them down into gold bars for sale.
While pirate movies have neatly shaped round doubloons, most period doubloons were actually quite misshapen. Originally, money was made by rolling out precious metals to a uniform thickness, cutting out coin shapes with stamps, and then weighing them. If the coins were not quite the right weight, they would be clipped, leading to an unusual shape. Shaving and clipping were also used by unscrupulous merchants, who would gradually collect enough shavings to sell them in the form of blocks of metal such as gold or silver. This is one reason why modern coins have textured edges; a legacy of attempts to prevent people from devaluing currency by shaving its edges off.
The use of Spanish coins such as the doubloon as legal tender in the United States was largely banned by 1860, although they continued to be used in several former Spanish colonies. In addition, some countries such as Mexico based their original currency systems on the old Spanish system, minting their own coins in a familiar style so that citizens would feel comfortable with the transition.