In 1913, the Buffalo Nickel replaced the Liberty Nickel, a coin that had been in production for more than 25 years. Although chief engraver Charles E. Barber wasn’t a fan of the coin’s design, Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeagh loved it and believed it was perfect for the Nickel. Otherwise known as the Indian Head Nickel, the Buffalo Nickel was designed by American sculptor James Earle Fraser and was minted for circulation until 1938.
On the obverse of the Buffalo Nickel is a Native American, facing right. The Indian head is modelled after three chiefs called Iron Tail of the Sioux, Two Moons of the Cheyenne and John Big Tree of the Seneca nation. All three chiefs had posed for Fraser many years prior to him coming up with the obverse design. Accompanying the head is the inscription LIBERTY which is located on the top right section of the coin. The date and designers initial F can be found just below the neck.
The reverse depicts a buffalo with his head facing down, standing on a raised mound that is situated just above the inscription FIVE CENTS. It is thought that the image is based on Black Diamond, a Buffalo who once lived in New York’s Central Park Zoo. Above the buffalo’s back is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA with E PLURIBUS UNUM just below.
When the United States Mint made the announcement that it was looking for new designs for the Nickel, James Earle Fraser got in touch. He had previously been an assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens which, of course, went in his favor.
Fraser produced several designs, one of which featured former President Abraham Lincoln and caught the attention of mint director George Roberts. However, Fraser went on to create other sketches for the coin including a Native American image and a bison design.
After the Native American and bison drawings were forwarded to Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeagh, Fraser was awarded the job of designing the Nickel. The models were completed in June 1912 but chief engraver Charles E. Barber complained saying that the design elements needed to be smaller in order for the proper placement of the inscriptions. Barber’s wishes were ignored and no changes were made to Fraser’s design.
During the first year of production, the Mint became aware that some of the design elements were wearing rather rapidly after the coins had entered circulation. It was the FIVE CENTS inscription on the raised mound that was proving the most problematic. Charles E. Barber had previously raised concerns about this but no one listened.
Barber was ordered to make some modifications to the Buffalo Nickel in 1913, creating the Type 1 and Type 2 versions of the coin. The Type 1 pieces with a mound were minted during the first few months of the year. For the Type 2 coins, Barber had to cut away the mound to make it appear flat and create a small space for the FIVE CENTS inscription when trying to solve the issues with wear. However, many of the Type 2 Buffalo Nickels found today feature worn dates so Barber wasn’t that successful after all. Also, Barber decided to smooth out some of the detail on both the obverse and reverse images even though he wasn’t authorized to do so.
The Buffalo Nickel series boasts various rarities and key dates, all of which are highly sought after. There are three rare overdates, including the 1918/7-D, as well as the 1914/3 and 1914/3-S. Another famous variety is the 1937-D three-legged buffalo featuring the buffalo with three legs, rather than four. This variety came about after a pressman at the Denver Mint tried to remove marks from the die and accidentally weakened or removed one of the legs on the buffalo. The mistake wasn’t noticed until the majority of the coins had entered circulation. Other key dates include 1918-S, 1920-S, along with the extremely rare coins struck at the San Francisco Mint from 1924 to 1927.
The Buffalo Nickel has not been seen in circulation for decades yet still remains one of the most popular American coins ever minted. These Nickels were struck at the Philadelphia (no mintmark), Denver (D) and San Francisco (S) mint facilities from 1913 to 1938, with the exception of 1922, 1932 and 1933. With such a fascinating selection of varieties to discover from the series, along with both matte and brilliant proofs, it’s no wonder so many numismatists strive to get their hands on these coins.
If you, like so many other coin enthusiasts, want to purchase Buffalo Nickels, you can always rely on Capital Gold Group to supply you with genuine specimens. Our experts are on standby to take your questions and discuss any special order requests. For more information about acquiring Buffalo Nickels or any other rare coins, we welcome you to call us or send us a message via our online form.