The five-cent coin has been made by the US Mint since 1794, but has only been called a “nickel” since 1866. Prior to then, it was known as a half dime, a small, thin 90% silver coin that was about half the size of a dime, since a coin’s worth was commensurate with how much precious metal it contained back then.
Silver shortages and coin hoarding during the Civil War led Congress to authorize minting small denomination coins that didn’t contain precious metals. The new coins would be made of 75% copper and 25% nickel. First produced to make two-cent and three-cent coins, this alloy was used to make five-cent pieces beginning in 1866 and gave the colloquial term “nickel” to those coins. With a brief exception in World War II, that alloy has been used since.
The nickel coin has been made continuously from its introduction in 1866 except in 1922, 1932, and 1933. During that time, the nickel has had four major designs: the Shield Nickel (1866-1883), the Liberty Nickel (1881-1913), the Buffalo or Indian Head Nickel (1913-1938), and the Jefferson Nickel (1938-present).
The Shield Nickel – 1866-1883
The first nickel has two design types; both have a heraldic shield on the face and a large numeral 5 on the reverse. Type 1 coins have rays between 13 stars surrounding the 5, but the rays proved hard to strike on the harder copper/nickel blanks, so in late 1867, the rays were eliminated on Type 2 coins.
Heavily worn Shield Nickels are relatively easy to find for $25-50, but higher graded coins can go for thousands. Key dates for the Shield Nickel include 1867, 1877-1881, and 1883 with a 3 over 2 date stamp.
The Liberty or V Nickel – 1883-1913
The five-cent coin was redesigned for release in 1883. The Charles Barber design depicted a bust of Lady Liberty on its face and the Roman numeral V on the reverse surrounded by a wreath of wheat, cotton, and corn. The first few coins didn’t have the word “cents,” only the Roman numeral, so counterfeiters began gold-plating them and passing them as five-dollar gold coins since they were of similar size. Recognizing the problem, midway through the first year, “cents” was added below the wreath. The early ones without “cents” are Type 1 coins and the remainder are Type 2.
Most circulated Liberty nickels are worth a few dollars, and uncirculated range from $100-250. Exceptions are key dates 1885-1886 and 1912-S, which can be worth over $1,000. The rarest is the 1913-S. Only five are known to have been made surreptitiously, and one recently sold for a reported $5 million.
The Buffalo or Indian Head Nickel – 1913-1938
As early as 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt had complained that US coins lacked unique designs, and by 1913, a new five-cent coin was released with an American bison on its face and the bust of a native American on the reverse. Production problems were noted with the reverse (Type 1) design early on and it was changed late in 1913 to include a larger date and a flat ground below the bison’s feet (type 2).
Most circulated Buffalo Nickels sell for $1-$10, with uncirculated samples in the $50-$200 range. There are a few low mintages and mistake coins that are worth considerably more. Key dates include:
The Jefferson Nickel – 1938-Present
The Jefferson Nickel replaced the Buffalo design in 1938 and has remained in circulation through today. The design of the Jefferson Nickel was unchanged until 1965, but due to wartime demand for nickel, the coin’s composition was changed in late 1942 to remove the nickel and use an alloy of 56% copper, 35% silver and 9% manganese. To make the wartime coins easy to distinguish, a larger mint mark appeared over the Monticello rendering on the reverse, including a large P for the Philadelphia mint, the first time Philadelphia coins carried a mint mark. The coins returned to their original composition in 1946.
In 2004-2005, four new reverse designs were used to commemorate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition (Monticello reappeared in 2006), and a new portrait of Jefferson facing forward was incorporated in 2006.
Jefferson nickels generally range in value from face (five cents) to a few dollars. Even the 35% silver wartime nickels bring only a few dollars in circulated condition. Uncirculated coins have a huge range of value, from a few dollars to tens of thousands for mint-condition pre-1965 samples. And a few “modern” (1965 on) coins can command fairly high prices for top-quality key dates and rare mintages, but most are worth only face value.
Besides the war nickels, some key dates to look for are:
It takes a fair amount of knowledge to navigate the nickel—it can even be a specialty of its own. Prices range from a few cents to a few million, and there are thousands to choose from. But a little knowledge goes a long way, so learn as much as you can, always have your cons graded by a professional coin grading service and only buy from sources you trust.