Because of consistent demand, production of the nickel five cent piece was higher than that of the equivalently valued silver half dime each year through the end of the half dime’s production in 1873, except for 1871. However, ongoing striking problems on the hard blanks lead to a modest design change of the Shield nickel in early 1867. The reverse rays were eliminated in the hope that without this element the coins would strike up more completely. There is agreement that the change produced the desired result, particularly in the sense of increasing die life so that more coins could be produced per die pair. The design change resulted in 1867-dated Shield nickels both with rays and without rays, a pattern of date duplication between designs repeated throughout the nickel series (counting the unofficial Liberty rarity produced in 1913). Elimination of the rays simplified the overall shield nickel design and gave the reverse side of the small coin an almost medallic appearance.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
The Shield nickel has dentils along the rim of both sides, and all were struck at Philadelphia so none display a mintmark. The obverse has the motto “In God We Trust” along the top periphery of the field, with the date centered at the bottom. In the center is an ornamented shield, topped with a symbolic cross (often described as the cross of the Order of Calatrava, an old military/religious order in Spain, though this attribution is subject to debate), flanked on both sides by laurel leaves, and lying above and in front of two crossed arrows at the bottom. The reverse has the words “United States of America” around little more than the top half of the periphery, with the word “Cents” at the bottom edge. Two dots, one on each side, are equally spaced between the two text legends. A large numeral 5 is in the center, from which thirteen six-point stars form an encircling wreath between the 5 and the text along the rim. The number 3 in 1873 coins was initially somewhat closed at the open end, causing confusion as to whether it was indeed a 3 or instead an 8. A change was made, resulting in both Open 3 and Closed 3 types for the year, but with proofs only in the Closed style.
Business strike shield nickels with no rays are generally affordable up through middle mint state grades, with strong increases at the gem level and above. Sharply struck coins remain a challenge but in general strike is considered to be better than that of the 1866-1867 with rays coins. No business strikes were produced in 1877 and 1878, attributed to lack of need due to the return of other small denomination, previously hoarded coins to circulation. Low mintage 1879 through 1881 years are key, with 1880 the most scarce. Some varieties have small premiums over regular issues, slightly more so with the Closed 3 1873 at higher mint state grades. An 1883/2 overpunch has significantly higher premiums, often ten times or more, at all grade levels.
Cameo and deep cameo proofs are listed in population/census reports, showing modest to significant price premiums over regular proofs. Some deep cameo coins list at up to twice the price of cameo coins. Proofs from 1877 and 1878 are considered key, with the 1877 at roughly twice the price of the 1878, and together at four to ten times the prices for the other years up to gem level; where the price difference moderates to about twice the premium. The proof only 1879/8 overdate is a significant variety, estimated to comprise as much as a third of the 1879 proof mintage, but generally does not carry a significantly higher price. Counterfeits for the years 1870 through 1876 are common, circulating mostly in New York and New Jersey, but are easily identified because of different shield and letter designs.
Designer: James Barton Longacre
Circulation Mintage: high 28,890,500 (1867), low 16,000 (1880; none minted in 1877 and 1888)
Proof Mintage: high 5,419 (1883), low 510 (1877, estimated)
Denomintion: Five cents (5/100)
Diameter: ±20.5 mm, plain edge
Metal content: 75% silver, 25% copper
Weight: 5.0 grams
Varieties: Extensively studied, with significant numbers of repunched dates, multiple die punch, and other die varieties. The 1873 Open 3/ Closed 3, proof 1879/8, and 1883/2 are probably the best known varieties.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, Q. David Bowers, Whitman Publishing
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.
Last Updated : 05/29/2008