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. James Earle Fraser’s design for the coin included popular western themes represented by the native American on the obverse and the 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. The first Buffalo nickels were minted in February, 1913, and released into circulation in early March. However, it soon became apparent that the raised denomination on the reverse would be subject to excessive wear, and to minimize that Mint 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. 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.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
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 opinion of many. Barber’s modifications are labeled Type or Variety 2. 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, including a slight repositioning of that text toward the center, and other modifications to the portrait, particularly the nose, though the latter is questioned by some scholars. Along with typical overpunch and doubled varieties, the Buffalo nickel is noted for some additional, more unusual anomalies. 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. 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 these specimen pieces 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. Specimen strikings are also reported for 1917, 1919, and 1935. 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.
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. 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.
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. No nickels were minted for circulation in 1922, 1932, or 1933. Prices are modest for many dates up to and including MS66, but generally expensive to very expensive finer than that. Higher priced issues, all expensive to very expensive, include 1913-S (Type 2), 1914 4 Over 3, 1916 Doubled Die Obverse (extremely expensive finer than MS60), 1918-D 8 Over 7 (extremely expensive finer than MS63), San Francisco examples from the early to mid-1920s, 1935 Doubled Die Reverse, 1936-D 3 1/2 Legs, and 1937-D 3-Legged. Matte or Satin proofs were minted from 1913 through 1916, and in 1936; and Brilliant proofs were minted in 1936 and 1937; specimen examples are confirmed for 1927 (fewer than 10 pieces in census/ population reports) and reported 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 PR64, expensive to very expensive finer than that.
Designer: James Earle Fraser, modified by Charles E. Barber
Circulation Mintage: high 118,997,000 (1936), low 970,000 (1926-S)
Proof Mintage: high 5,769 (1937), low 600 (1916)
Denomination: Five cents (5/100)
Diameter: 21.2 mm, plain edge
Metal Content: 75% copper, 25% nickel
Weight: 5 grams
Varieties: A few known, including 1914, 4 Over 3; 1916 Double Die Obverse; 1918-D, 8 Over 7; 1935 Double Die Reverse; 1936-D, 3 1/2 Legs; 1937-D, 3-Legged; 1938-D, D Over S; and other minor die variations.
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
The Original Hobo Nickel Society: www.hobonickels.org
The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels. David W. Lange. DLRC Press.
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A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
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