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What Is a First Strike Coin?

What is a First Strike Coin? by Roger Burdette.
Roger Burdette explains the evolution of the use of the term “First Strike”. Image: CoinWeek / David Shankbone.

By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..
Over several years, coin marketing and sales types have promoted catchy phrases for traditional first strike or first-off-new-dies coins. One version boldly claims something like “first strike” as a proprietary term. Another version uses “early release” to imply something special. Soon, we might possibly see “death defyingly new” (DDN) on coin slab labels. However it’s phrased, the apparent implication is that a coin is special in some way and therefore worthy of a premium valuation.

Let’s review what constitutes a new die and then talk about what happens when a coin is struck.

First Strike Definitions (Plural)

After a new hub (relief) is made, it is use to strike (or squeeze) a rod of soft die steel so that the design transfers from hub to die. This might require several squeezes, with each separated by annealing to relieve work hardening. When the design has been completely transferred, the die face is given a short dip in acid to remove any oxidized metal. The die is left with a smooth satin-like surface, and then given its final hardening and tempering heat treatments. If the die were intended for a purpose other than normal circulation coinage, then it could be further altered by polishing. As for Proof coins or other treatments to alter appearance of coins, this would be done before final hardening.

Strictly speaking, there is only one “first strike coin” from a pair of new dies, and only one coin that was the first to be produced by a mint when a new design is introduced. This is the first coin accepted by the Coiner as a legal tender (this definition accepts that the first coin struck might be damaged or defective, and thus rejected). This is mostly a ceremonial definition reserved for initiation of coinage at a mint, or introduction of a new design, possibly for a local community event.

Here’s an example from the reopening of the New Orleans Mint. In February 1879, a small crowd of people attended the first production of standard silver dollars at the New Orleans Mint since 1860, but there is no mention of anyone receiving the first coin struck.

About half-past 1 o’clock yesterday afternoon [February 18th], the first silver dollars in eighteen years were struck off at the New Orleans Mint…

…The work of coining the first silver dollars in eighteen years then commenced. Martin V. Davis, Esq., conducting the representatives of the press and visitors to the coining room. Upon a truck were placed eight or ten boxes of round milled pieces of silver of the required form and weight.

The [press’ feeding] hopper was filled with planchets and the machinery set in motion with a click, click, click – and the first silver dollars, bright and new, were coined at the New Orleans Mint at the rate of eighty per minute.

The machinery was in excellent working order, and in a day or two another press will be at work, when both, it is hoped will be kept continually running[1].

This true “first strike” standard silver dollar was not preserved but simply fell into the collection box next to the press. The first delivery from the Coiner to the Superintendent was of 10,000 new dollars on February 27[2].

A less stringent, but still accurate, definition of first strike is simply the first coin made with any pair of new dies. This means that if a mint uses 50 pairs of new dies, then there will be 50 first strike coins. The problem is how to obtain, certify, and preserve them. There’s no meaningful information on this approach although we know that 1965 Special Mint Set coins were struck from new dies[3].

A broader interpretation of first strike can be applied to any coin made with a pair of new dies within the first 100 pieces struck (or some other quantity) – basically, before luster develops. This closely fits the 1965 SMS official definition and gives us an example of what might be implied when the phrase “first strike” is used in a routine commercial setting.

In this circumstance, the production goal is to produce coins with the best image possible before normal die wear begins to soften or degrade detail. Results of this approach depends on whether a normal press or a high-pressure medal press is used. Satin Proof gold coins of 1909-1910 were made with new dies on a medal press, and show maximum sharpness and detail superior to circulation strikes. SMS Kennedy halves were also struck from new dies, but on a normal toggle press at lower pressure. They present only slightly better results than regular circulation pieces.

Figure 1. 1965 Special Mint Set half dollar (top) and normal circulation coin (bottom. The same type of presses were used for both, but the SMS coin was made from new (or nearly new) dies. Notice the satin-like surface of the SMS coin and its slightly better sharpness. (Courtesy PCGS Coinfacts.)

Figure 1. 1965 Special Mint Set half dollar (top) and normal circulation coin (bottom. The same type of presses were used for both, but the SMS coin was made from new (or nearly new) dies. Notice the satin-like surface of the SMS coin and its slightly better sharpness. (Courtesy PCGS Coinfacts.)
Figure 1. 1965 Special Mint Set half dollar (top) and normal circulation coin (bottom. The same type of presses were used for both, but the SMS coin was made from new (or nearly new) dies. Notice the satin-like surface of the SMS coin and its slightly better sharpness. (Courtesy PCGS Coinfacts.)

It’s evident from our discussion that “first strike” has subtleties of meaning that are not encompassed in common commercial designations. But there are limits to how far this can be reasonably extended. One possible option is for collectors to strictly limit this term to circulation coins that have only satin-like fields. Once we accept anything beyond this definition, we enter the nearly meaningless realm of postmark date – a date that has absolutely no connection to when a coin was struck, or condition of the dies.

Early Release

Mentioning post marks also brings us to one of the other widely used “terms of specialness” – the concept of “early release”[5].

Here we face not the condition of dies or date when a coin was struck, but the administrative decision of when to release coins from a mint into circulation, or to the Federal Reserve Banks for distribution. This rarely has any connection with when coins were made, and never with their quality, but relates only to when they are needed for commerce. In cases of new coin designs, the Mint Bureau typically builds a stockpile of coins prior to release. This helps avoid speculation and makes it possible to put new coins in the hands of as many people as possible, with the least disruption.

The Kennedy half dollar is a good example of how release date differs from manufacture. Half dollars honoring the assassinated President John F. Kennedy were released to the public on March 24, 1964. The coins had been designed in December 1963 and approved by Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy the late President’s wife and brother, respectively.

An initial set of hubs was prepared in December 1963 and 1964-dated dies from these hubs were used to strike a portion of the initial production of proof coins. These are commonly called the “accented hair” variety due to prominent hair features behind the President’s left ear. Mrs. Kennedy requested that these features be made less prominent, and new hubs were prepared incorporating the changes. All known circulation strike coins come from the revised hubs/dies. Kennedy half dollars dated 1964 were made at the Philadelphia Mint and the Denver Mint. The Denver coins have a small “D” on the reverse next to the eagle’s tail feathers.

Production of Kennedy Half dollars began on January 30, 1964 at the Denver Mint[5] and continued beyond the initial release date. Production of Kennedy Half dollars began on February 3, 1964 at the Philadelphia Mint and also continued beyond the initial release date[6].

Both mints held official “ceremonial striking” events on February 11, 1964, although in neither instance did this represent the first day the coins were struck. Mint Director Eva Adams considered all halves struck before the official start date as “pre-production”, or trial, strikes.

Adams notes:

…relative to the ‘first striking’ of the Kennedy fifty-cent piece for regular production. Keep in mind that many people probably know that some of them have been struck; but remember that these were only for the purpose of preparing to go into regular production[7].

Here we see the possibility that coins made and certified on January 30 (Denver), February 3 (Philadelphia), or February 11 (both mints) could be called “first strike” pieces. We also have Proof coins made February 11 and among the archives is a curious memorandum to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy from Treasury Secretary C. Douglas Dillon.

The memorandum is reproduced in full:

March 13, 1964

I am enclosing the second, third and fourth proof Kennedy half dollars struck at the Philadelphia Mint on February 11, 1964 with certifications. I have the first proof half dollar at the Treasury. For your information, proof coins are specially made and polished coins, primarily valued by collectors and not used in general circulation. After the first four coins not further distinction has been made among Kennedy half dollar proof coins. So these and the one I have are the only special coins in existence.

I have asked my office to make special arrangements with Angelo Novello for whatever ordinary Kennedy half dollars you may want on March 24, the first day of issue to the public.

Douglas Dillon[8]

Initial release dated coins would have been struck before March 24, but issued only on that day. Bags were routinely labeled with manufacturing dates, making it easier to tell if the coins were struck too late to qualify as first day of issue.

Occasionally, we find that the day coins were released was considered more important than the first coin made or those made on the first day. If we go back to our New Orleans Mint silver dollars of 1879, then it’s clear that, although the first coin struck was not retained, the first coin issued was important to the Superintendent and recipient.

Before ex-Gov. Foote, Superintendent of the [New Orleans] Mint left for consultations in Washington on Saturday, one of the last instructions he gave to Assistant Superintendent Tracy was not to forget that the first dollar sent out from the Mint was for Mrs. E. J. Nicholson, and authorizing him to give a certificate that the dollars was the first one.

On Thursday last, when the Coiner turned over to the Acting Superintendent the first installment of the first coinage, the first silver dollar sent out of the Mint was placed in a certificate, which, after being sealed, was handed to a reporter of the Picayune, who last evening presented the same to the lady to whom it was addressed.

The certificate reads as follows:

Mint of the United States

New Orleans. Feb 278, 1879

Mrs. E. J. Nicholson, New Orleans, La.

Madame – I have the honor to send you by Mr. H. B. Thompson the first dollar sent out from this Mint out of the first coinage of 1879. Yours, very respectfully.

T. G. Tracy,

Acting Superintendent[9]

The second coin issued was sent to Robert Hiram Henry, Editor of The Brookhaven Ledger in Brookhaven, Mississippi[10].

The Brookhaven Ledger news article about first New Orleans Morgan dollar struck.
The Brookhaven Ledger news article about first New Orleans Morgan dollar struck.

Several decades ago there was considerable interest in first-day-of-issue coins packaged in postal covers. These were limited to coins certified on their public release date, and not simply any time after that. Some of these remain and are found in hobbyist collections gradually coming to market. There are also a very small quantity of U.S. postal envelopes containing a coin and postmarked on the first day of release. Most contain Kennedy halves, Eisenhower dollars, or Anthony dollars dated 1979 and 1999. Similar commercial first-day-of-issue postal covers exist for the 50 State Quarter series and subsequent U.S. coins.

However collectors wish to acquire coins, it’s best to understand what the seller means by their terminology, and compare that to the non-commercial meanings of phrases such as “early release coin”, “first strike coin”, or maybe “interstellar starburst coin”.

* * *

Notes

[1] “A Mint Julep”, The Times Picayune, New Orleans. February 19, 1879. 8. Extracts. Most of the article concerns appeals for jobs by a group of ladies. The New Orleans Daily Democrat claimed the time was “precisely 2 o’clock.”

[2] RG104 E-271 Vol 1. 292. It took nearly a week to accumulate only 10,000 coins, and only 12,000 were delivered the next day. Contemporary newspaper reports state there was a shortage of bullion that limited coinage. The Mint had been authorized to pay $1.085 per fine ounce for bullion, but during the last two weeks of January, had bought less than 29,000 ounces – barely enough metal for 37,000 coins, or about one day’s output of dollars. Production was originally expected to begin February 1, but was postponed until the 4th, and again until the 18th.

[3] After 1964, the U.S. Mint discontinued issuing both Proof and Uncirculated Mint sets for collectors. As a replacement, the Mint Bureau began selling what were called Special Mint Sets. The coins in these sets were struck from new dies which produced a smooth, satin-like finish. We don’t know how many coins were struck from each die pair; however, once the dies began to develop “frost” (radial roughness of the surface), they were polished for continued use. Coins were struck on normal toggle presses, and received less handling than circulation coins. Collectors purchased over 2.6 million 1965 sets.

[4] No, this does not refer to second cousin Harry’s release from jail before his term was up.

[5] U.S. Mint. NARA-CP, RG 104, entry UD “Central Files,” box 22, folder “Kennedy Half.” Memorandum dated April 29, 1964 signed by Gilroy Roberts. 2.

[6] U.S. Mint. NARA-CP, RG 104, entry 328H, box 3, “Philadelphia.” Memorandum dated February 3, 1964 to Sura from Campbell, assistant superintendent. 2.

[7] U.S. Mint. NARA-CP, RG 104, entry UD “Central files,” box 22, folder “Kennedy Half.” Letter dated February 4, 1964 to Michael H. Sura, superintendent, Philadelphia Mint from Eva Adams, Mint Director. 1. Emphasis in original.

[8] U.S. Mint. NARA-CP, RG 104, entry 328I, box 3. Memorandum dated March 13, 1964 to Attorney General from Dillon.

[9] “The First Dollar”, The Times Picayune, New Orleans. March 1, 1879. 2. Henry S. Foote was a former governor of Mississippi.

[10] “Editorial Items”, The Brookhaven Ledger, Brookhaven, MS. March 13, 1879. 2. The Ledger incorrectly calls the coin the “second made.” It is not clear why the two coins first issued were given to newspaper editors/publishers.

Roger W. Burdette
Roger W. Burdette
Responsible for much original numismatic research in recent years, Roger Burdette was named the ANA Numismatist of the Year in 2023. Besides CoinWeek, he has written for Coin World and The Numismatist, among others. He is the author of Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 (2005); Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 (2006); Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915 (2007); A Guide Book of Peace Dollars (Whitman, 2009); and Fads, Fakes & Foibles (2021). He also co-wrote the NLG award-winning Truth Seeker: The Life of Eric P. Newman (2015) with Len Augsburger and Joel Orosz. Burdette served as a member of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) from 2008 to 2012.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Thank You ! for this honest article and expose on the various labels, and how they do not truly represent the production sequence of a coin in the Mint. With the proliferation of labels and signatures of various worthy officials, it now extremely difficult to focus on the matter of the COIN. The variation in pricing between a coin without and with commercial pedigree (advance, first, early, etc.) is staggering. E.g. a 2023 Morgan Adv Dly is $235, Fst Day is $215, Fst Dly is $180, Regular (TBD), and the Gibson signature COA is pushing to $2k raw; graded-signature will probably go to $5-10k. The hobby is rapidly cascading from coins to unique print labels. In fact we have seen artifacts such as locusts, as well as ordinary coins offered recently in slabs going for upwards of $10k. Recently an encasement of a common clad quarter, which apparently was the “first” rattler slab ever made was sold for a princely sum. The love has definitely shifted from coins to slabs and labels. Perhaps it is time for a new journal entitled “Slabs Weekly.”

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