Ron Guth: The coin known popularly as the “Nickel,” first appeared in 1866. The term “Nickel” refers to one of the metals used to strike the coin and was meant to differentiate the new coin from another of the same denomination that circulated concurrently -- the Half Dime made of silver. Despite the fact that other coins were (and are still being) made using Nickel, the term stuck in reference to the Five Cents piece
Nickel is a very hard metal that created considerable problems for the coiners. Die life shortened as the dies broke and cracked against the stubborn metal. One result was that, in 1867, the coiner resisted making Proof “Nickels” for fear of breaking the dies (this resistance was later overcome). Eventually, adjustments were made and Nickel became and integral and important part of our coinage.
The first “Nickels” were the Shield Nickels minted from 1866 to 1883. Rarities in this series include the 1866 Proof and the 1867 “With Rays” Proofs. Numerous interesting varieties exist, including 1879/8 and 1883/2 overdates. Only Proof versions of the Nickel were made in 1878 and 1879.
In 1883, the Liberty Nickel was introduced. The earliest versions were produced without the words “Five Cents” on the reverse. Enterprising individuals took advantage of this omission by gold-plating the coins, reeding the edges, and passing the coins off as some new $5 Half Eagle. The Mint quickly remedied the situation by adding “Five Cents” to the back of the coin later in 1883. Key dates in the “Liberty Nickel” series include the 1885, 1886, and 1912-S. A mere five 1913 Liberty Nickels are known, but these are believed to have been produced clandestinely at the Mint.
In 1913, the “Buffalo” or “Indian Head” Nickel was introduced. The purely American design featured the head of an Indian Chief on the obverse and an American bison on the reverse. The earliest versions had the words “FIVE CENTS” on a raised mound at the base of the reverse. Mint officials feared that the words would wear off the coin too easily, so the later versions of the 1913 Nickel have the words “Five Cents” in a recessed area. Key dates in the series include 1913-S Type 2, the 1914/3 overdate, the 1918/7-D overdate and the 1937-D “Three Legged.”
A new Nickel, designed by Felix Schlag, appeared in 1938. This was the third coin to feature an American president, Thomas Jefferson (coincidentally, the third American president). In 1943, demand for Nickel as a strategic metal in World War II, forced the Mint to return to a silver-based composition for the “Nickel,” an emergency measure that lasted through 1945. All of the dates in this series are easily obtained with the exception of the “S”-less Nickel produced in 1971.