One of the most controversial and emblematic coins the United States Mint ever produced is the 1943 Steel Penny. This highly sought-after coin is particularly unique because it was minted during the time of World War II.
In this article, we will understand the solution the United States Mint had to come up with to replace copper in coinage and its repercussions in American numismatics.
We will also explore the fascinating history, rarity, and value of the 1943 Steel Lincoln Wheat Penny.
History of the 1943 Steel Wheat Penny
In 1941, the United States of America joined forces with the Allies in the fight against the Axis in World War II. One of the country's efforts during the war was to prioritize the use of copper in favor of military equipment, such as ammunition. That caused a shortage of that metal in different sectors of the industry at the time, including for coinage.
Unable to use copper in various coin denominations (which included the Lincoln Cent and the Jefferson Nickel) due to the war effort, Congress prompted the United States Mint to search for a substitute (yet temporary) for copper. Different metals and other materials, including plastic, were considered and tested. Ultimately, Congress approved a composition of 99% steel and a thin layer of zinc coating.
The alloy resulted in a coin very visually different from its previous issues in terms of coloration. Being mostly made out of steel, with a thin zinc plating, the 1943 penny turned out to be shiny as silver. Many started calling it “the silver penny” because of that. And many people not really involved with the numismatic community actually thought it was made of silver.
At the time, the zinc-plated steel Lincoln Cent was not a big hit, though. People didn't like the fact that it resembled a nickel and would often mistake one for another.
Also, with time, as the zinc coating started to wear off, it would reveal the steel core. With time and exposure to the moisture from sweaty palms, the coins would corrode badly and turn dark gray.
The following year, the mint brought back the original 95% copper and 5% zinc alloy.
Check out the list of the 19 most valuable pennies ever sold
The design of the 1943 zinc-plated steel Cent is simple yet iconic. On the obverse side of the coin, we see a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln facing to the right, with the inscription "In God We Trust" above his head and "Liberty" inscribed to the left.
The reverse side of the coin features two wheat stalks encircling the words "One Cent" and the year of minting, 1943. This design was created by Victor David Brenner, the same artist responsible for the design of the original Lincoln Penny, in 1909.
1943 Steel Pennies were produced in three different mints: Philadelphia, San Francisco, and the Denver Mint. Mint marks can be found on the reverse side of the coin under the words "One Cent." Coins from the Philadelphia Mint bear no mint mark, while the Denver and San Francisco Mints used a "D" and "S" respectively.
Mint marks are important in identifying the origin of a coin and can affect its rarity and value.
How Much is the 1943 Steel Penny Worth?
The United States Mint struck over 600,000,000 of the Lincoln Wheat Penny in 1943, which is a fairly large mintage. Thus, it is safe to say that the coin is pretty common in numismatic terms.
Specimens in poor circulated conditions aren't worth more than 15 to 30 cents. However, the auction record for the 1943 Steel Cent is $218,500!
1943 Steel Cent
1943-D Steel Cent
1943-S Steel Cent
1943 Penny Errors
While minting the 1943 Lincoln Penny, the U.S. Mint produced some error coins that feature among the rarest coins in US history. See the list below:
1943-D/D Steel Cent
This error strike features a double "D" mint mark from the Denver Mint. An MS67 specimen sold in 2011 for the record price of $21,275 at Heritage Auctions.
Transitional error - The 1943 Bronze Penny
This is arguably one of the rarest variations in the American numismatic realm and could be quite more valuable than their steel counterparts.
Some of the 1942 copper planchets leftover ended up being mixed with the steel planchets and got struck with the 1943 dies.
An MS63 specimen, still bearing its original reddish coloration, struck in a bronze planchet (95% copper and 5% tin and zinc) sold for over $1 million for a private coin collector.
There are also 1943 Bronze Pennies bearing mint marks from Denver and the San Francisco Mint. These rare coins are some of the most coveted among coin collectors. Read more about the full 1943 Copper Penny in our article.
Interestingly enough, in 1944, when the US Mint should have returned to the bronze alloy, some zinc-coated steel planchets ended up in the pressing machines and were struck with the 1944 mint year. The 1944 Steel Penny is extremely rare. One specimen in mint state (graded MS66) was sold at an auction for $408,000 on August 22, 2021!
Check out our list of the most valuable Wheat Pennies.
How to Identify a 1943 Steel Penny
Many ill-intentioned people have tried plating a steel cent with copper to make it look like a 1943 bronze Lincoln cent. However, it is pretty easy to identify a steel penny. All you need to do is use a magnet.
Steel is a magnetic metal, whereas copper is not. If the coin is attracted by the magnet, it is a steel penny and is likely not worth a considerable value. If it does not react to the magnet, then you might have found yourself quite a big penny!
Another difference is that copper cents weigh 3.11 grams. Steel cents, on the other hand, weigh 2.702 grams.
Another scam involves altering the date on the coin. For instance, taking a 1948 copper penny and scratching the last digit to make it look like a number 3. But the 3 in the original 1943 steel and bronze cents have a long tail (as seen below). You should be able to identify a fake by matching a real coin with a fake side by side and comparing that last number in the mint year.
How do I know if my 1943 penny is rare?
As we have covered before, 1943 steel pennies are pretty common. However, if your penny is made of bronze (copper and zinc), or even another unknown composition, it might be a rare find. Take it to a trusted coin dealer to confirm you have a rare penny at your hands. You can test the metal composition with a magnet. If it sticks to the magnet, it is made of steel.
What makes a 1943 steel penny valuable?
Condition and rarity are key in determining a coin's value. According to the PCGS coin price guide, a 1943 steel penny in uncirculated condition (graded MS60 or above) is currently worth from $7 (MS60) to $3,500 (MS68).
Are there fake 1943 pennies?
Yes. Scammers plate a steel penny with copper to try and pass it off as a 1943 bronze cent. As we have mentioned before, you can use a magnet to identify it. Another scheme involves altering the dates from other issues. Check the long-tailed number 3 in real 1943 pennies and compare it to possible fakes to identify them.
What 1943 penny is worth the most?
The copper-zinc penny, made with leftover bronze planchets from 1942 is the most valuable variation (or error coin) from the 1943 mint year.
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