By Bullion Shark LLC ……
In the history of American numismatics, there are few coins that are more popular or well-known — even outside the numismatic community – than the 1943 Lincoln steel pennies. These zinc-coated steel cents are numismatic icons that any collector can afford.
1.1 billion of them were struck, including 685 million 1943 steel cents, 218 million 1943-D steel pennies and 192 million 1943-S steel cents. Each was composed of 99% steel and 1% zinc rather than 95% copper and 5% zinc and tin as pennies struck before 1943 were.
To understand why this happened, one must return to 1942 when following the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese forces, the U.S. officially entered the war and assisted its European allies in resisting the forces of Nazi Germany.
As the American war effort ramped up, factories that used to make consumer goods switched to producing military equipment, and there was an urgent need for copper and nickel, which were considered to be strategic metals since they were used to make armaments and other military items. For example, automobile plants now made trucks and bombs.
The Philadelphia Mint that had been making Proof sets discontinued them to focus on coins needed for commerce since demand for those coins was soaring. The composition of nickels was changed from 1942 to 1945 to coins made partly of silver since nickel was needed for the war effort too.
Tin and copper needed to be conserved for wartime use, so several companies were asked to experiment with other metals and substances that could be used to make new cents, including fiber, zinc and plastic of several colors, among others.
Steel with a thin coating of zinc (to help prevent rust) is what they settled on, and production of 1943 steel pennies began February 23, 1943. However, all three mints making these coins (Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco) encountered problems with the hardness of the steel planchets. And when released into circulation, the coins quickly acquired spots and stains because the zinc coating did not cover the edges.
In addition, steel pennies were generally not popular at the time. Many people confused new steel cents with dimes because of the similarity in their color, and there were also problems with the steel pennies in vending machines, some of which would not accept the coins or thought they were slugs. In September 1943 legislation was passed to stop producing the coins and withdraw the remaining coins from circulation. But the measure did not pass.
At the beginning of 1944, steel cents were discontinued, and a new composition consisting of bronze (made of 95% copper and 5% zinc) was used for cents issued from 1944 to 1946. This was made possible by using copper from scrap ammunition shells from fired small arms (from shooting ranges and training areas) that had zinc added to them to create the right alloy. Americans were told where the metals came from to imbue a sense of patriotism.
At the end of the war the Treasury Department quietly retired the coins from circulation through the network of banks of the Federal Reserve and did not announce the move to prevent people from hoarding them.
How Much is a 1943 Steel Penny Worth?
However, many wartime steel cents were saved, though most were not in good condition because their zinc and steel composition reacts poorly over time. Lower-grade examples are worth less than a dollar each since they are plentiful.
Nice uncirculated examples such as in MS65 can be obtained for around $50 each or less, though an especially nice coin for the grade may sell for more. Very high mint state coins in MS68 run many thousands of dollars each since examples in that state of preservation are scarce.
These wartime steel pennies are also important to numismatic history because there are some exceptionally rare cents from this era that were made in error using the wrong materials – most notably the 1943 copper pennies and the 1944 steel cents.
An estimated 40 examples of the 1943 copper cents were said to exist according to the late coin expert Walter Breen, but Q. David Bowers has noted that he does not believe there is evidence to support this number and thinks there are fewer of them.
The first examples surfaced in the 1950s. The first sale was in 1958 for a 1943 cent that brought $40,000 USD.
These coins are believed to have been created when 1942 bronze planchets were left in the coin press hoppers and were struck with 1943 dies.
While estimates vary, according to NGC there are fewer than 12 of the 1943-S, while PCGS says there are five known examples. PCGS says there are 10-15 1943 examples, while NGC says there are 17 confirmed examples. Everyone agrees the 1943-D coin is unique (a PCGS MS64 Brown that sold for $1.7 million in 2010).
David Lange of NGC calls these three pennies “error royalty” as they are the rarest and most valuable error coins ever issued. Most examples are worn and are still worth a lot of money.
Keep in mind that for decades charlatans have been trying to peddle fake 1943 copper cents that are simply 1943 steel cents coated in copper, or coins of other years that have had their dates altered. The easy way to determine if a coin is a real 1943 copper cent is to see if it sticks to a magnet. If it does stick, it is steel, not copper.
Finally, even rarer than 1943 steel cents are 1944 steel cents of which NGC has graded four examples and PCGS has graded nine – though PCGS estimates there is a total of 25-30.
While you are very unlikely to ever discover any of these super-rare off-metal errors as they are known, every collector of U.S. coins, including type collectors, needs at least a set of the 1943 steel cents.