What Are Nickels Made Of? A Brief Guide to Nickel Coins

What Are Nickels Made Of? A Brief Guide to Nickel Coins

Apr 10th 2024

What Are Nickels Made Of? US Nickel Coin Guide

The US nickel may not be used nearly as much as it used to, but it's still one of the most important coins in U.S. history. However, it's also not necessarily made of its namesake. In fact, you might be surprised to learn what nickels are made of. Continue reading to learn more about the nickel coin.

Let’s break down the answer to this question and more in a brief guide.

A guide to nickel coins

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Image source: PCGS

What Materials Are Used by the U.S. Mint To Make Five-Cent Coins?

Although the nickel sounds like it would only be made from one metal – nickel – in reality, the U.S. Mint makes all of its five-cent coins with an alloy of multiple metals instead.

25 Percent Nickel

First, each official nickel in the U.S. is made with 25% nickel. That nickel material is combined with layers of other materials like…

75 Percent Copper and Manganese

75% Copper and manganese or some other strengthening metal, such as iron. This alloy is called “cupronickel” or copper-nickel, a reference to the alloyed nature of the resulting material.

Copper and manganese are added to nickel to strengthen five-cent coins, making them better for general circulation. Nickels have been made with this metallic composition since 1866, with a diameter of 0.835 inches and a thickness of 0.077 inches.

Prior to this design, silver half dimes were issued from 1792 to 1873. Because of the American Civil War and related economic uncertainty, silver and gold were driven out of circulation in many cases.

To solve this, the government issued paper currency and then issued a new form of a five-cent coin that did not use pure silver whatsoever. Today, indeed, modern nickels are among the least valuable coins in terms of their melt value purely because they don't include gold or silver.

The Only U.S. Coin Not Named for Its Metal

However, at least nickels do contain some of their titular materials in their compositions. That's different from another U.S. coin, the dime.

Each dime or $.10 piece gets its name from a Latin word – decimus – which just means “tenth.” Thus, the dime is not named for its material or metal at all. We can compare this to many other coins that have their names derived from other languages or words for metals.

War Nickels: Five-Cent Pieces Made Without Nickel During World War II

During World War II, the U.S. Mint issued a special version of the nickel called the war nickel. This was a variation of the Jefferson nickel that had been in circulation since the removal of the previous Buffalo nickel, which included a side portrait of the titular president and a relief drawing of Monticello.

In World War II, nickel was one of the most important materials for building war machines and related supplies. As a result, the Mint tried to reduce how much nickel it used.

To reduce nickel usage, the Mint struck new "war nickels" made with an alloy of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. These nickels featured a large mint mark, "P," which hovered above the Monticello drawing. Interestingly, it was the first time that the P mint mark for Philadelphia appeared on a U.S. coin.

When Was the Buffalo Added to the 5-Cent Coin?

Before the modern Jefferson nickel you probably know about, nickels were struck with a Buffalo side and a Native American head side. The "Buffalo nickel" was a copper nickel coin worth five cents and was struck by the U.S. Mint from 1913 to 1938.

The Buffalo nickel was replaced by the Jefferson nickel in 1938 when its mint period of 25 years expired without being renewed. Today, because of the rarity of these nickels, they are much more valuable and are often prized by collectors.

Bonus fact: the “buffalo” on the Buffalo nickel isn’t a Buffalo at all. Instead, it’s an American bison!

Have Nickels Always Been the Same Size?

Not at all! Nickels were originally smaller than ten-cent pieces. It seemed logical at the time that coins should become smaller as they were worth less money.

In 1793, when coins were first made by the U.S. Mint, the standard coin was the silver dollar. Coins of smaller denominations were smaller than this standard coin. A dime or ten-cent coin had 1/10th of the silver found in asilver dollar.

Thus, the five-cent coin had 1/20th of the silver found in a silver dollar and was smaller than the dime. However, this coin's size was determined to be too small to handle and too difficult to use. Therefore, the modern nickel dimensions were settled in 1866, and all further five-cent pieces were made according to those specifications.

That’s why nickels are larger than dimes despite being worth less money. This is also why pennies are larger than dimes despite only being worth 1/10 of a dime’s value (and 1/100th of a dollar).

Nickel vs. Half-Dime

Technically, a nickel and a half-dime are not the same things. The nickel is a common American coin that has a face value of five cents; it’s made with a copper-nickel alloy.

A half dime, meanwhile, is a five-cent piece that has 1/20 of the silver of an old American silver dollar.

They may have both of the same face values, but American silver half dimes may be worth more because of their silver content.

Are There Rare US Nickel Coins?

These days, you can contact coin dealers like Bullion Shark to add a rare US nickel coin to your collection.

1913 Liberty Nickel: “The Olsen Specimen”

The 1913 liberty nickel, sometimes called the Olsen specimen, was a very limited nickel produced in small quantities by the U.S. Mint. Only five versions of this nickel are known to exist, two of which are in private collections and three of which are in museums.

1918 Buffalo Nickel: Doubled Die Obverse

The 1918 Buffalo nickel is an iconic, very scarce variety of the above-mentioned nickels, which were replaced by Jefferson nickels.

1926-S Buffalo Nickel

The 1926 Buffalo nickel was only created in quantities of 970,000 by the San Francisco Mint. Thus, these coins have the lowest mintage rate of any Buffalo nickels.

The Jefferson Nickel

The iconic Jefferson nickel is a popular collector’s coin. You can find Jefferson nickels minted from different areas and different time periods. Regardless, some Jefferson nickels are sold for thousands of dollars because of their rarity or because of minting errors.

1913 Denver Buffalo Nickel

The 1913 Denver Buffalo nickel was the first ever produced of this type. This nickel is notable because the five-cent denomination was the highest point on the coin's surface, so it was worn away more quickly. Future versions of the Buffalo nickel put the denomination below the Buffalo, so the denomination lasted for longer.

Rare Nickels for Sale

Nickels, as you can see, are made of more than just nickel! In addition, there are dozens of rare U.S. nickel coins you can collect, especially when you work with knowledgeable, experienced coin dealers like Bullion Shark.

Bullion Shark sells not just rare nickels but also hundreds of other rare coins perfect for collectors just like you. Check out our selection today and grow your collection tomorrow.

What specific roles did manganese and iron play in the composition of nickels, and why were they chosen over other metals?

Manganese and iron were chosen to be added to the nickel and copper alloy primarily because of their ability to enhance the durability and resistance of the coins to wear and corrosion. Manganese, for instance, improves the strength and hardness of the alloy without significantly increasing its brittleness, making the coins more suitable for long-term circulation. Iron, similarly, contributes to the overall strength of the coins. These metals were selected over others due to their availability, cost-effectiveness, and the desirable physical properties they confer to the alloy, ensuring that the coins can withstand the rigors of daily use while maintaining their appearance and integrity over time.

How has the nickel value changed over time in comparison to their metal content?

The value of nickels in relation to their metal content has seen notable shifts throughout history, particularly during times of economic upheaval or significant fluctuations in metal prices. For example, during periods when the prices of nickel and copper have risen sharply, the melt value of the coins can approach or even exceed their face value, leading to discussions about the sustainability and practicality of their current composition. However, the U.S. Mint has historically managed these challenges by adjusting the metal composition of coins or implementing measures to prevent melting and hoarding. The intrinsic value of the metals in nickels has often been a topic of interest among collectors and economists, especially as it relates to the costs of coin production and the potential impacts on the nation's currency system.

Are there any contemporary efforts or proposals to change the composition of the nickel due to economic or environmental considerations?

Contemporary discussions about changing the composition of the nickel, as well as other coins, have indeed taken place, driven by economic considerations such as rising metal prices and the desire to reduce minting costs. Environmental considerations also play a role, as there is a growing interest in using more sustainable materials and production methods. The U.S. Mint periodically evaluates the composition of coins and conducts research into alternative materials that could provide the necessary durability and aesthetic qualities at a lower cost. While specific proposals have been made, including the use of steel or other less expensive metals, any changes to coin compositions would require legislative approval. As of the last update, no changes have been implemented, but the topic remains an area of active research and discussion within the numismatic community and among policymakers.


  1. What are nickel coins made of? Nickel coins in the United States are primarily made of a cupronickel alloy, which consists of 75% copper and 25% nickel. This composition has been standard for the 5-cent coin since 1866, except for a brief period during World War II.
  2. Why are they called nickel coins if they're mostly made of copper? The term "nickel" for the coin comes from the 25% nickel content in its alloy. Although the majority of the coin is copper, the presence of nickel is significant enough to lend the coin its name, highlighting the importance of nickel in providing durability and its silvery appearance.
  3. When was the nickel coin first introduced? Nickel coin was first introduced in the United States in 1866. The first nickel coin was the Shield Nickel, which replaced the silver half dime.
  4. What is the value of a nickel coin? A nickel coin has a face value of 5 cents. However, certain collectible nickel coins, depending on their year, mint mark, condition, and rarity, can be worth significantly more to collectors.
  5. Are there any rare nickel coins? Yes, there are several rare nickel coins that are highly sought after by collectors. Examples include the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, of which only five are known to exist, and the 1942-1945 War Nickels, which have a higher silver content.
  6. What is a War Nickel? A War Nickel refers to nickels produced from 1942 to 1945 during World War II, which have a composition of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. These coins were made with this composition due to the critical need for nickel in wartime manufacturing.
  7. How can I tell if my nickel coin is valuable? To determine if your nickel coin is valuable, you should consider its year, mint mark, overall condition, and any unique features or errors. Consulting a coin value guide or a professional coin appraiser can also provide insights into its potential value.
  8. What is the most valuable nickel coin? One of the most valuable nickel coins is the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, with one of the five known examples selling for over $3 million at auction. Its value is due to its rarity and the mystery surrounding its production.
  9. How do I care for my nickel coins? To care for your nickel coins, handle them by the edges to avoid transferring oils from your fingers, store them in a cool, dry place, and use acid-free holders or albums designed for coin storage to protect their condition.
  10. Can I still find valuable nickel coins in circulation? While finding highly valuable nickel coins in everyday circulation is rare, it's still possible to come across older nickels, War Nickels with silver content, or coins with mint errors. Coin roll hunting, where collectors obtain rolls of coins from banks to search through them, is a popular way to look for these treasures.


Cupronickel (Copper-Nickel) Facts, Composition, Properties, Uses | Chemistry Learner

A Brief History of the Nickel | Smithsonian Magazine

Fun Facts related to the Nickel | US Mint