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Buffalo Nickel, Type 2 (1913-1938) | CoinWeek

1938-D Buffalo nickel. Image: David Lawrence Rare Coins / CoinWeek.
1938-D Buffalo nickel. Image: David Lawrence Rare Coins / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
 

Buffalo or Indian Head nickels have been a popular series with collectors since the start of the type, abetted by the introduction of collecting boards and albums in the 1930s. Sculptor James Earle Fraser’s design for the coin included popular western themes represented by a Native American on the obverse and a bison (more commonly known as a buffalo, though the two are distinct species) on the reverse. The coin also had matte or pebbled fields (popular with sculptors of the day), instead of the smooth or polished surfaces typically seen on U.S. coins.

U.S. Mint Revises Buffalo Nickel Design Months After Release

The first Buffalo nickels were minted in February 1913, and released into circulation in early March. It soon became apparent, however, that the raised denomination on the reverse would be subject to excessive wear. To minimize this, United States Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber cut away most of the mound upon which the bison stands to provide a recessed space (called an exergue) for the text.

A side-by-side comparison of the Type I and Type II Buffalo nickel reverses. Image: CoinWeek.
A side-by-side comparison of the Type I and Type II Buffalo nickel reverses. Image: CoinWeek.

The obverse date was equally exposed, though no apparent changes were made to protect it–and it is not unusual to see examples of Buffalo nickels today with the date nearly obliterated.

Barber also made additional modifications to the design, smoothing the textured fields and reducing details in both the Indian’s hair and the bison’s hide, changes that reduced the artistic strength of the original design in the opinions of many.

Barber’s modifications are labeled Type 2 or Variety 2, with the original design being Type 1. Some authors have proposed an additional “Type 3” designation for nickels produced from 1916 through 1938, based on changes made in 1916, though these nickels are not usually considered a separate type.

The 1916 changes included a sharper depiction of the word LIBERTY on the obverse, a slight repositioning of that text toward the center, and other modifications to the portrait, particularly the nose (though the latter has been questioned by some scholars). Along with typical overpunch and doubled varieties, the Buffalo nickel is noted for some additional, more unusual anomalies.

No nickels were minted for circulation in 1922, 1932, or 1933.

How Much Money Are Buffalo Nickels Worth?

A few thousand business strike Buffalo nickels have been certified for each date in the series, though fewer for some varieties, and the census includes a very few prooflike pieces.

Prices are modest for many dates up to and including MS-66, but generally expensive to very expensive finer than that.

Higher priced issues, all expensive to very expensive, include the 1913-S (Type 2), the 1914, 4 Over 3; the 1916 Doubled Die Obverse (extremely expensive finer than MS-60); the 1918-D, 8 Over 7 (extremely expensive finer than MS-63); San Francisco examples from the early to mid-1920s; the 1935 Doubled Die Reverse, the 1936-D 3 1/2 Legs, and the 1937-D 3-Legged.

Buffalo Nickel Proofs

Matte or Satin Proofs were minted from 1913 through 1916, and in 1936. Brilliant Proofs were minted in 1936 and 1937. Specimen examples are confirmed for 1927 (fewer than 10 pieces in census/population reports) and may also exist for 1917, 1919, and 1935. Several hundred Proofs have been certified (a few thousand for 1937), including a few Cameo examples, with moderate prices through PR-64, expensive to very expensive finer than that.

In the following video, coin expert Ray Herz gives an informative grading class to help collectors learn how to tell the difference between Mint State and About Uncirculated Buffalo nickels.

 

In-Depth Type 2 Buffalo Nickel Date Analysis by CoinWeek Notes

A gem mint 1915-S Buffalo nickel. Image: CoinWeek / David Lawrence Rare Coins.
A gem mint 1915-S Buffalo nickel. Image: CoinWeek / David Lawrence Rare Coins.
1916 Buffalo nickel Doubled Die Obverse graaded XF45 by CAC. Image: David Lawrence Rare Coins.
1916 Buffalo nickel Doubled Die Obverse graded XF45 by CAC. Image: David Lawrence Rare Coins.

Varieties and Special Strikes

Several Cherrypicker’s Guide varieties, plus a handful of notable Red Book varieties, including the 1914, 4 Over 3; the 1916 Doubled Die Obverse; the 1918-D, 8 Over 7; the 1935 Doubled Die Reverse; and the 1936-D, 3 1/2 Legs.

A classic piece of American coinage is the 1937-D, 3-Legged nickel, which resulted from a careless or over-zealous effort to remove clash marks or defects from the reverse die.

The 1938-D, D Over S is also a minor die variation worth mentioning.

A few 1927 prooflike Philadelphia nickels were identified in 1989 as Specimen strikings, described as having exceptional details, flat rims with squared inner edges but wire (or knife) outer edges, and satin surfaces with reflective edges.

The reason they were made is unknown, but a recent theory is that they were trial pieces produced from chromium-plated dies and collars (tested at the time for the production of coins for Ecuador), perhaps struck at the discretion of Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock, who had a preference for Matte Proofs.

Hobo Nickels

Another interesting variety of the type is not a product of the U.S. Mint at all, but consists of nickels with the surfaces (usually the obverse) modified by carving or engraving. These Hobo nickels, as they are called, are mentioned in numismatic literature as early as the late 1910s. Made by hobos during the 1930s Depression years, or perhaps done by other artists to represent those itinerants, the resultant efforts are miniature works of folk art. More recent “nickel carver” artists have added modern examples to this classic type, and these new modified coins are also a collectible.

 

Hobo nickel creator Ron Landis discusses the modern hobo nickel on episode #48 of the CoinWeek Podcast.

Design

Obverse:

A right-facing Indian portrait (a composite of three actual Indian chiefs), with hair braided to the side and two feathers tied at the crown, occupies most of the obverse. The word LIBERTY is placed to the upper right, just beyond the forehead, and is the only text next to the raised rim. The date is located at the lower left, on the portrait shoulder, and the designer’s initial F is located below the date.

Reverse:

A full side view of a left-facing bison dominates the reverse, the beast standing on a slightly raised mound under which is the denomination of FIVE CENTS. UNITED STATES oF AMERICA forms an arc above the bison inside the flat rim, and crowded into the space below AMERICA and above the back of the animal is E PLURIBUS UNUM, each word on a separate line. Indian Head nickels were minted at Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco; D and S mintmarks are located below the denomination.

Edge:

The edge of the Type 2 Buffalo nickel is plain or smooth, without reeding or edge lettering.

Coin Specifications

Buffalo Nickel, Type II
Years Of Issue: 1913-38
Mintage: High: 118,997,000 (1936); Low: 970,000 (1926-S)
Mintage (Proof) High: 5,769 (1937); Low: 600 (1916)
Alloy: 75% copper, 25% nickel
Weight: 5.0 grams
Diameter: 21.2 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV and REV Designer James Earle Fraser; modified by Charles E. Barber

 

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References

Bowers, Q. David. The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels. Whitman Publishing.

–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.

Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of United States Coins. Doubleday.

Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.

Lange, David W. The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels. DLRC Press.

Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.

Yeoman, R.S and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. I have just come across 20 1964 d satin nickels to me they look like they are SMS as well as I can see the s in the obverse and reverse where can I send pictures what someone can look at them and they can either deny or concur with me

  2. I have found a liberty Quarter. I found out they are sought after. Out of 400.00 in change I only found that one. Just started collecting so it looks good to me, I received a magnifier and got to looking closer. Obverse “in God we trust ” is an error it says “in cod we trust ” most fascinating. Well I would like to sell or auction it off to the highest bidder. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks

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