During World War II nickel metal was a strategic war material for munitions, and the supply of the raw material was not sufficient to satisfy the requirements of both the War Department and the Mint; and war needs came first. In the search for a replacement for nickel an issue that was first raised in the transition from the Liberty Head nickel to the Indian Head (Buffalo) nickel once again became significant: the coins needed to work in vending machines. To catch slugs and other fakes, vending machines not only checked a coin’s weight but also its electrical resistance. Any substitute for nickel in the five cent coin would need be a metal in an alloy that met both requirements. Following several trials, metallurgists discovered that a copper, silver, and manganese alloy met the weight and electrical specifications. The new alloy was authorized by the Act of March 27, 1942, and the first coins were produced in October of that year. Thus, five cent coins were minted without their namesake constituent- there was no nickel in the nickel. The wartime “nickels” marked the first time silver had been used in a five-cent denomination since the last half dime was minted in 1873.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
To distinguish the silver nickels from the regular copper-nickel composition, for an anticipated but unfulfilled removal from circulation after the war, the mintmark was placed above the dome of Monticello on the reverse. For the first time, a P mintmark was used to signify coins minted at Philadelphia. The wartime alloy was apparently a difficult blend to make, as lamination defects and irregular oxidation effects are not uncommon. Whether through carelessness or frugality, some 1942-P and 1943-P nickels were produced on copper-nickel blanks, and some 1946 examples were minted on silver composition blanks; a situation not unlike that of the 1943 bronze cents (which should have been produced on zinc-coated steel) and 1944 steel cents (which should have been produced in bronze). In the early 1950s, 1944 copper-nickel coins without the P mintmark were discovered in circulation, but these were determined to be counterfeits. Silver alloy nickels circulated for many years after the end of WWII, to be withdrawn in the mid-1960s when increased silver prices resulted in a bullion content that exceeded the denomination value.
The obverse displays a left-facing portrait of Jefferson, who wears a coat and a wig representative of the period. Inside a flat rim is IN GOD WE TRUST to the left of the portrait, and LIBERTY and the date to the right, the last two separated by a small centered five-point star. The reverse shows an elevation view of the front of Monticello, with the word MONTICELLO below. Around the smooth rim are E PLURIBUS UNUM at the top and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA at the bottom; FIVE CENTS in smaller letters forms a concentric arc above STATES OF and below MONTICELLO. Wartime nickels were minted in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Denver; P, S, and D mintmarks are located above the building, below E PLURIBUS UNUM.
Thousands of business strike wartime Jefferson nickels have been certified, and the count includes a few prooflike pieces and hundreds of examples with Full Steps designation (referring to the visibility of the steps on Monticello, designated as either Five Full Steps or Six Full Steps). Most examples are graded as AU58 or finer, although there are many examples of the 1943-P, 3 Over 2, at lower grades. Higher priced pieces include MS64 and finer 1943-P Doubled-Die Obverse, 1943-P 3 Over 2, and 1945-P Doubled-Die Obverse; and Full Steps examples finer than MS63. Proofs of the type were minted only at Philadelphia in 1942, and a few thousand have been certified, a few designated Cameo or Deep Cameo. Proofs are modestly priced through PR67, expensive to very expensive finer. Cameo and Deep Cameo pieces are expensive finer than PR64.
Designer: Felix Schlag
Circulation Mintage: high 271,165,000 (1943-P), low 15,294,000 (1943-D)
Proof Mintage: 27,600 (1942-P only)
Denomination: Five cents (5/100)
Diameter: 21.2 mm, plain edge
Metal Content: 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese
Weight: 5 grams
Varieties: A few known including 1943-P, 3 Over 2; 1943-P, Doubled-Die Obverse; 1943-P, Doubled Eye; 1945-P, Doubled-Die Reverse; and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
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