The Buffalo Nickel

Buffalo Five Cents or Buffalo Nickels as they are commonly called, was designed by James Earle Frasier. It appeared and were minted in the year 1913-1938 at the US Mints located in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver. To this date, it remains to be a beloved and one of the most popular coins among collectors even after almost a century of being released to the public.

The Buffalo Nickel’s History

The Liberty Head Nickel has been in circulation ever since it was struck in 1883. However, since a new design is permitted every 25 years thanks to the Coinage Act of 1890, the production of the Liberty Head Nickel was stopped in the year 1912. It was under the jurisdiction of Franklin MacVeagh, the current Secretary of US Treasury at that time, who made the production of the Liberty Nickel’s replacement a possibility.

James Earl Fraser, a well-known artist and a former assistant of Augustus Saint-Gaudens is the head behind the monumental design of the Buffalo Nickel. These were made from 75% Copper and 25% Nickel. It has a diameter of 21.2mm, weighs approximately 5.00g and has a plain edge.

The Obverse

1935_Indian_Head_Buffalo_Nickel.jpg: Original uploader was Bobby131313 at en.wikipedia derivative work: Wehwalt (talk), Indian Head Buffalo Obverse, size by Bonnie Mattie, CC BY-SA 4.0

The Obverse features a male Native American which was a composite of the Native American Chiefs facing right. The three chiefs were John Big Tree, Two Moons and Custer’s opponent at the Little Big Horn, Iron Tail. The legends LIBERTY can be seen on the upper right edge of the bust while the date is located on the lower left.

The Reverse

1935_Indian_Head_Buffalo_Nickel.jpg: Original uploader was Bobby131313 at en.wikipedia derivative work: Wehwalt (talk), Indian Head Buffalo Reverse, size by Bonnie Mattie, CC BY-SA 4.0

On the other side of the coin, a portrait of an American Bison or buffalo facing left is featured as well as the legends the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM above the bison and the words Five Cents below it.

Charles Barber, the current Chief Engraver of the US Mint during the time the old Liberty Head Nickel was replaced, made objections to Fraser’s design. Barber claimed that the elements of the design were too big causing improper placement of the inscriptions. However, because of Fraser’s medallic and artistic design, it was no wonder why it was favored by MacVeagh and was chosen for the new Five Cent coin.

Another controversy struck the making of the Buffalo Nickel after the US Mint received the machines that will be used for the production of the new nickels and cents. Mr. Hobbs, the owner of the Hobbs Manufacturing Company that provided pieces of machinery that were able to detect counterfeit coins, argued about Fraser’s design. He claims that the machines would not work efficiently with the proposed design, which is why a revision was in order. After a long and complicated dispute, MacVeagh ordered the US Mint to proceed with Fraser’s original design, letting the mechanisms of the machine make the necessary adaptations.

From the time the Buffalo Nickel was minted in 1913 up until 1938, over 1.2 billion were produced. However, none were minted in 1922, 1932 and 1933. In the year 1913-1916, there were 5,967 Buffalo Nickel Matte Proofs produced. In 1936 to 1937, there were 10,189 Buffalo Nickel Brilliant proofs minted.

Since the striking of the Buffalo Nickel has always been a problem ever since the beginning of the production, a large number with mintmarks were not available in well-struck conditions from 1918-1934. It was also because of this persisting issue that many matte proofs were mistakenly identified as well-struck business strikes, and vice versa.

Each coin was minted in the three US Mints bearing their respective mint marks. Those minted in Philadelphia bears no mint mark, D for coins minted at the Denver Mint and S for those produced in the San Francisco Mint. Each mintmark can be found on the reverse side of the coin under the denomination. Fraser’s initial (F) was also incorporated in the design and can be seen on the obverse side of the coin, just below the date.

The Buffalo Nickel has two varieties – the Type 1 and Type 2. However, minor modifications were again made by Barber. Some collectors consider this as another variety, but most only consider the first two. Strangely enough, Barber made no attempts to address the underlying issue of why the dates on the coins wore down too quickly.

The Buffalo Nickel was born in the age where nickels were an extremely useful coin. As a result of their heavy circulation in the public, one may be lucky enough to come across one in very fine to extremely fine conditions many years after being produced.

24 years after the Buffalo Nickel, a new design started to come around as per the Coinage Act of 1890 and a new nickel was born. The Jefferson Nickel replaced the Buffalo Nickel and has continued its production and circulation up until today.

Collecting Buffalo Nickel

Although Buffalo Nickel has a lower value than other coins, these are still a popular and a sought-after coin among collectors because of their affordability and ease of acquisition. However, since a complete set will require you to collect a 25-year set, it can be tricky, not to mention the fact that some have worn out dates making them hard to identify. When you plan on collecting Buffalo Nickels or any other coins, it is important to check the coins’ key dates, grades, variety, and rarity.

Key Dates

A key date is one that depicts the date or date and mint mark in a coin series that is harder to obtain. For Buffalo Nickels, the key-date are categorized into two: regular issue key dates and the unplanned or error irregularities.

Regular Issue Key dates are coins with dates and produced in mints that have low mintage rate. These have high values nowadays and includes Buffalo Nickels with key dates 1913-S Type Two, 1921-S, 1924-S as well as 1926-S.

With just one look, one can easily tell that these were all minted in the US Mint located at San Francisco since all coins produced here bears the mint mark S. The San Francisco Mint produced far less Buffalo Nickels than Denver and Philadelphia. Multiple numbers of Buffalo Nickels minted have weak strikes since Nickel is a very hard metal.

Unplanned or Error Irregularities are key dates that were among the greatest rarities. Since no one planned the errors made due to irregularities in the minting process, the die used or both, there is no exact number as to how many unplanned key dates are there. The following are the most sought after irregularities for the Buffalo Nickel:

  • 1916 Double Die
  • 1918/17 D Overdate
  • 1937-D 3-Legged Variety
  • 1936-D 3 ½-legged variety

Grading Buffalo Nickels

Buffalo Nickels are usually graded by checking on the wear of the reverse side of the coin. However, since these were struck in Nickel which is a very hard metal, most coins struck from the 1910s to 1920s in the Denver and San Francisco Mints with mint marks D and S respectively were poorly struck.

FR-AG (Fair and About Good) – The rim is worn on the tops of the lettering and the date cannot be seen accurately and there are only one or two numbers showing.

G-VG (Good to Very Good) – The horn’s base can be seen, and the date and lettering are worn. However, the date is still visible and the letterings are clear.

F-VF (Fine to Very Good) – Most parts of the horn are visible, but although the tip may or may not be visible.

EF-AH (Extremely Fine to About Uncirculated) – One can see the full horn tip.

The Two Varieties of the Buffalo Nickel

In early 1913 when the first Buffalo Nickels were produced and made available to the public, the buffalo stands on a raised mound and its denomination (Five Cents) appeared to be in raised letter. Because of this, the denomination wore off very fast much to the US Mint’s distaste.

In order to resolve this, they had to modify the design to protect the denomination later that spring. They made the buffalo stand on a flat plane while the denomination is now in a recessed area. The denomination no longer wears prematurely. However, since the date on the other side of the coin was still minted with raised letters, this resulted in countless of dateless Buffalo Nickels by 1950s through early 1960s.

Buffalo Nickels were minted in Mint and Proof States. Mint state coins were made mainly for collectors and are not meant to be used for commerce. Circulated coins were meant for circulation or public use, also known as Business Strikes or Regular Strikes. On the other hand, Proof Coins are those minted for collectors and generally go for higher prices.

Type 1 Buffalo Nickel Coins according to the PCGS Coin Facts

1913 5C Type 1 Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 30,992,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1913-D 5C Type 1 Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 5,337,000 at the Denver Mint

1913-S 5C Type 1 Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 2,105,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1913 5C Type 1 (Proof) – total number of coins minted: 1,520 at the Philadelphia Mint

Type 2 Buffalo Nickel Coins according to the PCGS Coin Facts

1913 5C Type 2 Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 29,856,186 at the Philadelphia Mint

1913-D 5C Type 2 Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 4,156,000 at the Denver Mint

1913-S 5C Type 2 Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 1,209,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1914 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 20,664,463 at the Philadelphia Mint

1914/(3) 5C Buffalo Nickel  total number of coins minted: 20,664,463 at the Philadelphia Mint

1914-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 3,912,000 at the Denver Mint

1914-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 3,470,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1915 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 20,986,220 at the Philadelphia Mint

1915-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 7,569,000 at the Denver Mint

1915-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 1,505,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1916 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 63,498,066 at the Philadelphia Mint

1916 5C Doubled Die Obverse Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 63,498,066 at the Philadelphia Mint

1916-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 13,333,000 at the Denver Mint

1916-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 11,860,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1917 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 51,424,019 at the Philadelphia Mint

1917-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 9,910,000 at the Denver Mint

1917-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 4,193,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1918 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 32,086,314 at the Philadelphia Mint

1918-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 8,362,000 at the Denver Mint

1918/7-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 8,362,000 at the Denver Mint

1918-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 4,882,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1919 5C Buffalo Nickel- total number of coins minted: 60,868,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1919-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 8,006,000 at the Denver Mint

1919-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 7,521,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1920 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 63,093,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1920-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 9,418,000 at the Denver Mint

1920-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 9,689,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1921 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 10,663,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1921-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 1,557,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1923 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 35,715,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1923-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 6,142,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1924 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 21,620,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1924-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 5,258,000 at the Denver Mint

1924-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 1,437,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1925 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 35,565,100 at the Philadelphia Mint

1925-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 4,450,000 at the Denver Mint

1925-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 6,256,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1926 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 44,693,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1926-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 5,638,000 at the Denver Mint

1926-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 970,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1927 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 37,981,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1927-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 5,730,000 at the Denver Mint

1927-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 3,430,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1928 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 23,411,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1928-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 6,436,000 at the Denver Mint

1928-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 6,936,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1929 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 36,446,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1929-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 8,370,000 at the Denver Mint

1929-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 7,754,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1930 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 22,849,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1930-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 5,435,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1931-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 1,200,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1934 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 20,213,003 at the Philadelphia Mint

1934-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 7,480,000 at the Denver Mint

1935 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 58,264,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1935 5C Doubled Die Reverse Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 58,264,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1935-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 12,092,000 at the Denver Mint

1935-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 10,300,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1936 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 118,997,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1936-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 24,814,000 at the Denver Mint

1936-D 5C 3-1/2 Legs Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 24,814,000 at the Denver Mint

1936-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 14,930,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1937 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 79,480,000 at the Philadelphia Mint

1937-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 17,826,000 at the Denver Mint

1937-D 5C 3 Legs Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 17,826,000 at the Denver Mint

1937-S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 5,635,000 at the San Francisco Mint

1938-D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 7,020,000 at the Denver Mint

1938-D/S 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 7,020,000 at the Denver Mint

1938-D/D 5C Buffalo Nickel – total number of coins minted: 7,020,000 at the Denver Mint

1913 5C Type 2 (Proof) – total number of coins minted: 1,514 at the Philadelphia Mint

1914 5C (Proof) – total number of coins minted: 1,275 at the Philadelphia Mint

1915 5C (Proof) – total number of coins minted: 1,050 at the Philadelphia Mint

1916 5C (Proof) – total number of coins minted: 600 at the Philadelphia Mint

1936 5C Satin (Proof) – total number of coins minted: 4,420 at the Philadelphia Mint

1936 5C Brilliant (Proof) – total number of coins minted: 4,420 at the Philadelphia Mint

1937 5C (Proof) – total number of coins minted: 5,769 at the Philadelphia Mint

1927 5C Special Strike (Special Strike) – total number of coins minted: 5 at the Philadelphia Mint

The Rarity of the Buffalo Nickel

The rarity of a Buffalo Nickel will depend on the date of the series. Regular issues are considered common, while the remaining issues are considered rare.

The following are the several valuable varieties of the Buffalo Nickel

1913-S Type 2

After the first design of the Buffalo Nickel came out, the US Mint had to make some adjustments to help delay the premature wearing of the denomination. All three mints in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco produced the varieties, but those with the mint mark S is the rarest variety.

1916/16 Doubled Die Variety

This die variety is the most in-demand among the Buffalo Nickel varieties. A mistake in the production of the Buffalo Nickel happened in 1916 when a doubling appeared on the obverse side of the coin. The last three digits of the date have duplicate digits that appear a little to the right and lower than the clearer 1916. This is considered very rare when in uncirculated conditions, and very valuable in circulated grades.

1918-D 8 over 7 Doubled Die Variety

The US Mint located in Denver also yielded a doubling mistake in the year 1918 and many numismatics believed that over a hundred thousand were produced. The 1916/16 Doubled Die Variety is far more pronounced than the 1918-D 8 over 7 Doubled Die Variety, but latter still features a very obvious doubling on the last digit of the date which is 8. A number 7 can be clearly seen under the 8. Uncirculated 1918-D 8 over 7 Doubled Die Variety are considered extremely rare.

1921-S

In 1921, Buffalo Nickels were minted at the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints, but since Philadelphia produced over ten million coins and San Francisco Mint only has a mintage rate of 1,500,000 coins, those that bear the mint mark S is rarer. Circulated Buffalo Nickels are not that hard to find, but you will have to pay a premium price for them, nonetheless.

1924-S

These are more affordable than the 1921-S. Philadelphia and San Francisco minted Buffalo Nickels in 1924, with Philadelphia having a far less high mintage rate.  San Francisco only produced more than 5 million coins while Philadelphia struck more than 21 million Buffalo coins. Thanks to the 14:1 ratio, the 1924-S makes it a scarce variety in all grades.

1926-S

The San Francisco Mint only produced more than 970,000 Buffalo Nickel coins while Philadelphia struck almost 6 million Buffalo coins, making the 1926-S a scarce coin.

1935 Doubled Die Reverse

When the coin die was manufactured for the Buffalo Nickel at the US Mint in Philadelphia, these produced a double die variety. A doubling occurred on the legend E PLURIBUS UNUM and the denomination FIVE CENTS. Another doubling occurred on the buffalo’s eye, mane and horn.

1937-D Three-Legged Buffalo

In 1937, there was a damaged reverse die that resulted in a die clash found on the buffalo’s front right leg. A production worker made attempts to repair the mistake but it obviously turned out worse. When he removed the indentation found on the die using a tool, way too much metal was removed and one of the buffalo’s front leg was lost – resulting to a three-legged buffalo. When collecting a 1937-D Three-Legged Buffalo, make sure to purchase only from certified dealers as many have tried to remove the buffalo’s front leg on some 1937-Ds with four legs.

Buffalo Nickel Price Guide

When it comes to Buffalo Nickels, you can buy a common variety in the lowest grades for as low as $1. The condition, variety, and rarity of the coin will determine its price value. According to the PCGS, the most expensive Buffalo Nickel they have graded is at $500,000 for the 1918/7-D.

References:

PCGS, PCGS CoinFacts,US MintCoin Trackers, The Spruce

Featured Image Source: Photo taken by user bobby131313 and may be used freely with following credit. Image courtesy of CCF Numismatics, 1936-Buffalo-Nickel, size by Bonnie Mattie, CC BY-SA 3.0