Q. David Bowers (edited and updated by Mike Sherman): In 1913 the Liberty Head nickel, which had remained in service since 1883 was replaced by a new design, the so-called Buffalo (more properly, the Indian) nickel by James E. Fraser, a well-known sculptor. The obverse portrait was modeled from life by studying three Indian models, while the reverse was styled from a bison, popularly called a “buffalo,” at the Bronx Zoo.
The obverse depicts the head of an Indian facing right, with LIBERTY in small letters at the upper right edge, and the date at the lower left. The reverse shows a bison standing on a raised mound, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM above, and FIVE CENTS on a mound below.
It was found that the relief of the mound caused the inscription in that area to wear quickly, so the bottom part of the reverse was subsequently redesigned, creating the so-called Type II. The Type I is distinguished by the presence of a mound with FIVE CENTS inscribed on it, as noted. Production of business strikes was accomplished at Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco, with Philadelphia registering by far the largest mintage. At Philadelphia, 1,250 Matte Proof examples were made for collectors.
Examples of the 1913 Type I Buffalo nickel are readily available in all grades from About Good to Uncirculated. Superb Uncirculated coins are scarce, although not rare. Matte Proofs have survived in relatively few numbers, and of the 1,250 minted, probably not more than a few hundred still exist. As certain business strikes closely resemble Matte Proofs, care is to be taken when buying one of these.
-- Reprinted with permission from "United States Coins by Design Types - An Action Guide for the Collector and Investor" by Q. David Bowers