The Shield Nickel initially appeared in 1866 and became the first U.S. copper-nickel coin with a five-cent value. It followed a rather unpopular five-cent note and was created a year after the release of a three-cent coin, also composed of base metal. There were many ideas flying around as to what should be featured on the new Nickel coin but it was engraver James Barton Longacre who was put in charge of designing the piece.
On the obverse of the Shield Nickel is a large shield, similar to the one used on the two-cent coin. The top section of the shield displays thin horizontal lines and the bottom section shows thicker vertical lines. Two arrows appear from the bottom of the shield, while a cross sits at the top of it. The inscription IN GOD WE TRUST is shown above the design, with the date below. When it comes to the reverse, a large number 5 has been placed in the center and encircled by thirteen stars. This image is surrounded by the engravings UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and CENTS.
Longacre’s obverse design is considered one of the most patriot images ever used on an American coin. The shield is based on the coat of arms found on the Great Seal of the United States of America. Struck until 1883, the Shield Nickel was replaced with the Liberty Nickel.
When the Shield Nickel was first released in 1866, it was widely criticized and regarded by many as being an unattractive coin. Most people were particularly unhappy about the stars and rays on the reverse because it reminded them of the motif of the defeated Confederate States. The Shield Nickel was also difficult to strike, resulting in poorly produced coins. The fact that the dies were only capable of producing a certain number of pieces and constantly had to be replaced just made matters even worse.
By early 1867, the Mint removed the rays from the reverse hoping that criticism would disappear and some of the production issues could be solved. This merely led people to believe that the new design was not genuine and the coins must be counterfeits. Completely frustrated by this point, the Mint seriously considered getting rid of the Shield Nickel design altogether.
Later in 1867, Longacre suggested using aluminum instead of the copper-nickel composition. The then-mint director Henry Linderman shunned the idea saying that it would be too costly to produce such a minor denomination in aluminum. Two years later in 1869, the Mint had been successful in striking enough Shield Nickels to meet commerce demand. However, in 1876, production stopped and no coins other than collector’s proofs were minted in 1877 and 1878. Shield Nickel mintages remained very low in 1879, 1880 and 1881 but a high mintage was achieved in 1882 and 1883.
The Shield Nickel series is rich in varieties, mainly thanks to the great number of dies needed to strike the coins. For example, the 1868 coins offer an array of errors and repunched dates and some of the 1869 pieces were struck with narrow date dies. Then there’s the doubled-die obverse of 1872, as well as the “closed 3” and “open 3” varieties of 1873. Not forgetting the various 1883/2 overdates of 1883 that show a 3 struck over the 2. With so many Shield Nickel varieties in existence, collectors generally choose to obtain either complete variety or date sets.
Shield Nickels play an important role in the history of American coinage because they were the first official U.S. coins to be called Nickels. Although the coin enjoyed relatively high mintages for a number of years, production gradually dwindled and eventually stopped in 1877. When the Shield Nickel returned to the production lines in 1879, mintages figures remained low. The 1880 Shield Nickel is the rarest coin from the series, with only 16,000 pieces minted for circulation.
As previously mentioned there are plenty of varieties to look out for, from repunched dates and doubled die obverses to overdates and narrow date versions. This alone makes collecting Shield Nickels an interesting and rewarding experience.
If you would like further advice or wish to discuss how you can purchase Shield Nickels, please feel free to get in touch with Capital Gold Group. You can reach our rare coin experts by phone, email or the online message form on our Contact page.