1943 Steel Pennies: An Important Part of U.S. Numismatic History

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.

Rare Versions

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.
 

15 COMMENTS

    • As the article notes, all 1943 steel cents stick to a magnet. The magnet test is used to identify error coins that were struck on bronze planchets and thus are NOT magnetic. The simple rules are:

      1943, sticks to magnet: Very common, not worth more than 25-50¢ in average condition.
      1943, does NOT stick: Rare and should be evaluated by an expert.

      For 1944 cents the rules are reversed:

      1944, sticks to magnet: Rare
      1944, does NOT stick: Common, worth only a few cents in average condition.

  1. I have several 1943 steel pennies, but looking for the elusive 1943 copper struck pennies. My question is: where would a good place be to start looking for this item? Thank you.

    • The chances of finding one in circulation are vanishingly small. As the article notes, only a handful of these coins were struck and their existence has been known since the mid-1950s. That means people have been searching pocket change for well over half a century. In addition nearly all “wheatback” cents, regardless of date, have long since vanished from general use.

      About the only way one will turn up now is if it’s in someone’s penny jar that hasn’t been emptied in decades, stuck in an old collection held by heirs who aren’t themselves familiar with rare coins, or (unlikely) in a roll that’s been sitting on a bank’s vault for ages. Those options strongly limit the ability of the average collector to find one today.

  2. Are there any other steel pennies made or aluminum ones.i need to know because I have some and don’t know if their real?

  3. I have a copper 194- Lincoln wheat and there isn’t a fourth number in the date. How can I determine whether it’s an 1943 copper Lincoln cent. And is any collector in the collector’s world that might be interested in viewing and possibly buying??

  4. I have always wondered about these pennies. I have tried collecting every wheat penny, one from each year. The oldest dating 1910, 1913 D, 1917 to the newest of 1957. The collection consisted of 5 1943 steel pennies which are 1943 D x2 and 1943 x3. I’ve had these now for 4-5 years never knowing who to seek information from. This article did an amazing job breaking it down for me. Thank you so much!

  5. I have 1943 still penny in mint condition but it don’t have a mint mark. How to tell if it’s real. It’s for sale if it’s worth anything. I have bunch of wheat Penny’s that I will sale to.

  6. Nobody seems to remember that there were tons of planchette left over after that. The United States Mint put them to good use in 1944 when they created the 2 Franc Belgian piece. I have some of those, and I have created little holders in which I put a 43 zinc Cent and a 44 Franc coin. I gave some to a couple of folks, and they really were taken with them.

    Foreign coins made in United States Mint actually tie up a lot of little tidy stories regarding American numismatics.

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