Nickel History

The history of the nickel in the United States encompasses a journey through innovation, design evolution, and economic necessity. This narrative spans several distinct designs that have graced the five-cent piece, each reflecting the era's cultural and historical context. From the introduction of the Buffalo Nickel to the current Jefferson Nickel, and including lesser-known variations like the Three Cent Nickel and the Liberty Head Nickel (often referred to as the V Nickel due to its Roman numeral denomination), each coin tells a story of American life and monetary policy. Continue reading to learn about US Nickel History.


US Nickel History

Buffalo Nickel History

The Buffalo Nickel, first minted in 1913, is perhaps one of the most iconic American coins, symbolizing the country's westward expansion and frontier spirit. Designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser, it featured a right-profile portrait of a Native American on the obverse and an American bison on the reverse. The design was intended to celebrate the country's indigenous peoples and wildlife, making it a beloved piece among collectors. However, its relief was considered too high, causing the coin to wear quickly in circulation. Despite this, its production continued until 1938, when it was replaced by the Jefferson Nickel.

Jefferson Nickel History

The Jefferson Nickel was introduced in 1938, featuring a portrait of Thomas Jefferson on the obverse, designed by Felix O. Schlag. The original reverse depicted Monticello, Jefferson's Virginia estate. This design was part of a broader initiative to honor past U.S. Presidents on currency. Over the years, the Jefferson Nickel has seen minor changes, including a temporary modification to the reverse design in 2004 and 2005 to commemorate the Lewis and Clark Expedition's bicentennial. The coin continues to be minted today, making it one of the longest-running designs in U.S. coinage history.

Three Cent Nickel History

The Three Cent Nickel, minted from 1865 to 1889, was a product of its time, introduced during a period of economic upheaval following the Civil War. It was created to ease transactions during a time when small denomination silver coins were hoarded and rarely seen in circulation. Composed of a copper-nickel alloy, the coin featured the Goddess of Liberty on the obverse and a Roman numeral III on the reverse. The Three Cent Nickel was eventually phased out as the economy stabilized and demand for the denomination waned.

V Nickel History

The Liberty Head Nickel, or V Nickel, was produced from 1883 to 1913. Its obverse featured a left-facing image of Lady Liberty, and the reverse initially bore a large Roman numeral V, encircled by a wreath. Early versions of the coin did not include the word "cents," leading to confusion and fraud as some people plated the nickel with gold and passed it off as a five-dollar coin. The Mint quickly amended the design to include "cents" at the bottom of the reverse side. The V Nickel is remembered for the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, one of the rarest and most valuable U.S. coins, with only five known examples in existence, created under mysterious circumstances not intended for public circulation.

Shield Nickels

The Shield Nickel was the United States' first five-cent coin made of a copper-nickel alloy, minted from 1866 to 1883. It replaced the silver half-dime, marking a significant shift in American coinage. The coin's obverse features a shield emblematic of the nation's strength and unity, while the reverse initially depicted a numeral "5" surrounded by stars and rays. The rays were removed in 1867 to improve the coin's striking characteristics. The Shield Nickel, despite its relatively short production run, laid the groundwork for the nickel's role in U.S. currency.


At Bullion Shark we offer all five different kinds of nickels that were ever produced in the United States. These nickels date all the way back to the first nickel produced by the U.S. mint (The Three-Cent Nickel), all the way to our present-day nickels (The Jefferson Nickels). These nickels all have many differences such as their design and their face value. 

The first nickel minted by the U.S. Mint that had a five cent denomination was the Shield nickel. The Shield Nickel started the tradition of having a copper-nickel alloy in all of our nickels. Before that was the Three-cent nickel which was originally called the “Copper-nickel three-cent piece”, but was later changed. After the Shield nickel the United States Mint switched to the V nickel because of minting issues with the Shield Nickel. Thereafter came the Buffalo nickel in 1913. The Buffalo Nickel was loved by everybody because of its design, featuring a Native American on the obverse and a buffalo on the reverse. Lastly, in 1938 came the Jefferson nickel which is still minted today.

The different types of nickels that we offer are the following:

Three-cent nickel: 1865-1889

Shield nickel: 1866-1883

V nickel: 1883-1912

Buffalo nickel: 1913-1938

Jefferson nickel 1938-1964 (War Nickels from 1942-1945 were 35% silver)



What is the origin of the US nickel?
The US nickel was introduced in 1866, initially as the Shield Nickel, which featured a shield on the obverse and a 5 surrounded by stars on the reverse.
Why was the nickel created?
The nickel was created to provide a more stable, less expensive, and more durable alternative to the silver half dime, especially during a period when precious metals were in high demand and hoarded during the Civil War.
What are the different types of nickels?
The main types include the Shield Nickel (1866-1883), Liberty Head or V Nickel (1883-1913), Buffalo or Indian Head Nickel (1913-1938), and the Jefferson Nickel (1938-present).
Who designed the Buffalo Nickel?
The Buffalo Nickel was designed by sculptor James Earle Fraser, featuring a Native American on the obverse and a bison on the reverse.
What is the significance of the Jefferson Nickel?
The Jefferson Nickel, introduced in 1938 and still in production, honors Thomas Jefferson. It's significant for its enduring design and historical commemoration of the third President of the United States.
Are there any rare nickels that collectors seek?
Yes, rare nickels include the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel (with only five known examples), the 1942-1945 silver "War Nickels," and certain error coins.
What is the composition of modern nickels?
Modern nickels are composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel, a standard that has remained since 1866, with the exception of the silver "War Nickels" minted during World War II.
Why are some nickels called "War Nickels"?
"War Nickels" minted from 1942 to 1945 contain 35% silver, a modification due to nickel being a critical war material during World War II.
What was the first nickel to feature a president?
The first nickel to feature a president was the Jefferson Nickel, introduced in 1938 with Thomas Jefferson's portrait.
Has the design of the nickel ever changed?
Yes, the design has changed several times, from the Shield Nickel to the current Jefferson Nickel, which has seen various revisions, especially on its reverse side.
What makes the 1913 Liberty Head Nickel so special?
The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel is one of the rarest and most valuable U.S. coins, with only five known specimens. It's special due to its mysterious production, not authorized by the U.S. Mint.
How can you tell if a nickel is valuable?
A nickel's value is determined by its type, mint year, mint mark, condition, and rarity. Key dates, errors, and high-grade examples are particularly valuable.
What is the "Buffalo" on the Buffalo Nickel?
The "Buffalo" on the Buffalo Nickel is actually an American Bison, and it represents the wildlife and spirit of the American West.
Why did the US Mint replace the Buffalo Nickel?
The Buffalo Nickel was replaced by the Jefferson Nickel due to difficulties in striking the coin properly and the desire to honor Thomas Jefferson on the nation's currency.
Are nickels still made of nickel?
Yes, nickels still contain nickel, specifically 25% of their composition, combined with 75% copper.