The Buffalo Nickel or Indian Head Nickel is a copper-nickel five-cent piece that was struck by the United States Mint from 1913 to 1938, and it replaced the Liberty Head Nickel.
In this article, you will find various aspects of the Buffalo nickels, including design, minting process, distribution, key dates, rarity, and factors influencing their value.
Keep reading to explore notable varieties of the Buffalo Nickel.
The composition of the Buffalo nickel consists of 25% nickel and 75% copper. In fact, with a few exceptions, almost all nickels are made of that alloy.
The artist responsible for the design was James Earle Fraser.
The obverse of the coin features the profile of a Native American facing towards the right, with the word "LIBERTY" inscribed in small letters at the upper-right edge and the date displayed at the lower left corner. Note the detailed texture of the feathers and the pronounced cheekbones of the man.
Fraser's design is one of the most beautiful representations of the Native American in the USA coinage.
On the reverse, despite the common denomination of buffalo, it is a depiction of an american bison who was then living in the Central Park Zoo in New York City. The animal is standing on an elevated mound, with the inscriptions "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" and "E PLURIBUS UNUM" positioned above it. The phrase "FIVE CENTS" is situated on a mound below the American bison.
It was the first animal on a circulating American coin that was not an eagle.
All Buffalo nickels have the designer's initials on them regardless of any of the three mints facilities where they were manufactured.
It is worth mentioning that in 2006, a modified version of Fraser's design was used for American Buffalo gold bullion coins.
The American Bison
According to the American Numismatic Association, James Earle Fraser used the American Bison as his design for the Buffalo nickel to ensure that the coin would never be mistaken for anything but an American coin.
In 1947, during a radio interview, Fraser discussed his inspiration:
"Well, when I was asked to do a nickel, I felt I wanted to do something totally American - a coin that could not be mistaken for any other country's coin. It occurred to me that the buffalo, as part of our western background, was 100% American and that our North American Indian fitted into the picture perfectly."
The National American Indian Memorial
On February 22, 1913, a groundbreaking ceremony took place for the National American Indian Memorial at Fort Wadsworth, Staten Island, New York. As part of this event, the U.S. Mint sent forty nickels for distribution.
The majority of these coins were given to Native American chiefs who participated in the ceremony. However, despite the ceremony, the memorial was ultimately never constructed. The media referred to the project as a "philanthropic humbug" due to its failure to materialize.
Explore additional information about the production of the Buffalo Nickel minting process and distribution, as well as the years in circulation, quantities produced, and types of coins available.
Mints Used for Production
Regular edition coins were produced at three different locations: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco in large quantities for circulation, with the Philadelphia mint producing the highest number of coins compared to the other two locations.
The mint mark, denoting the origin, can be found on the reverse side of the coin, positioned just below the "FIVE CENTS" denomination.
"S" Mint mark on Reverse
The coins with the “S” mintmark were produced at the San Francisco Mint. The mintmark can be seen below the FIVE CENTS inscription. A date with all numerals clearly showing plus the "S" mint mark will, most likely, be of superior value.
The scarcity of San Francisco Buffalo nickels is primarily due to their low mintage numbers, making many buffalo nickels dates for each year relatively rare. In total, only 118 million nickels were struck across all years, which is the lowest among the other mints.
Consequently, many of the valuable and sought-after nickels are those minted in San Francisco.
"D" Mint mark on Reverse
Those with a “D” mintmark were produced at the Denver Mint, in Colorado. The Denver Mint struck just over 225 million samples of the Buffalo Nickel. Early year examples, 1913 to 1926, are all high premium coins if in good condition.
An excellent illustration of a high-quality coin would be the 1938 Buffalo Nickel minted in Denver.
Its distinction as the final year of the series, combined with its exclusive Denver origin, amplifies the coin's appeal and increases its desirability among coin collectors.
No Mint mark on Reverse
Buffalo Nickels bearing not mintmarks are from the Philadelphia Mint. This Mint was responsible for the production of the highest numbers of buffalo nickels. Throughout the years, the main mint put more than 900 million nickels into circulation. As a matter of fact, the older nickels found today are usually a Philadelphia piece.
Affordable in higher condition, a date run is a popular collection, giving this issue a high appeal from a collector's perspective, which creates a high demand among numismatic professionals.
Years in Circulation
The Buffalo nickel or Indian Head Nickel was struck by the United States from 1913 to 1938, with the exception of 1922, 1932, and 1933, when no nickels were minted due to economic issues.
During this period, the United States went through meaningful historical events. The First World War (1914 - 1918) and the Great Depression, which according to the Federal Reserve History, was the longest and deepest downturn in American history, and the modern industrial economy lasted more than a decade, beginning in 1929 and ending during World War II in 1941.
Fraser’s design was replaced in 1938 for the Jefferson Nickel.
As soon as it was released in 1913, it was noticeable that the reverse design had a relief of the mound that caused the inscription in that area to wear off quickly. To solve that, the obverse was kept the same, while the reverse was restyled.
The U.S. Mint changed the coin's design to recess the denomination below the coin's rim. And the buffalo standing on the mound was then standing on a line instead of a raised ground. The newly designed coins became known as Type II nickels and were produced from 1913 through the end of the buffalo motif.
The Reverse of Type 1:
The Bison is standing on a raised mound.
The Reverse of Type II:
The raised line above the FIVE CENTS protects it from wearing out easily on day-to-day transactions.
Understanding the various factors that contribute to the buffalo nickel value is crucial for enthusiasts and collectors alike. In the following section, we delve into the key elements that can influence the worth of this iconic coin.
From the significance of mint marks to the demand among collectors and the allure of rare varieties, read further to explore the intricate dynamics that shape the value of Buffalo Nickels.
Factors Affecting the Value of a Buffalo Nickel
Several factors can affect the value of a coin. That is, date, condition, mint mark, rarity, and demand among collectors.
Mint marks are letters that identify where a coin was made. They hold the maker responsible for the quality of a coin.
In some years, coins were exclusively produced at a specific mint, while in other cases, there might have been a disparity in production quantities between different mints. As a result, coins minted in certain locations may possess greater value.
The factors involved with collectors' demand can include historical significance, rarity, condition, aesthetic appeal, and cultural or thematic appeal.
Coins that are historically significant, such as those from a notable era or depicting a significant event, tend to attract collectors' interest and drive up demand. Similarly, coins with limited mintage or those that are scarce in the market tend to be more sought after.
Mint errors and poor durability can affect the condition of the coin, so it's essential to look for well-preserved pieces for your coin collection.
According to PCGS, grading Buffalo Nickels tends to be by the condition of the reverse:
Fairly Good/About Good
In very low grades ( Fair and About Good), the date will often be very weak, with only one or two digits showing. The item will be worn on the tops of the lettering.
In grades of Good and Very Good, the lettering should be clear, and the full date should be visible, although it will be worn. The base of the buffalo's horn should show.
In grades of Fine and Very Fine, most of the horn should show, although the tip may not be visible.
Extremely Fine/About Uncirculated
In Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated, a full horn tip should show.
Source for all the images above: https://www.pcgs.com/photograde/#/buffalo/grades
Key dates for Buffalo nickels are divided into two main categories:
- Regular issue key dates with a low population, that is, few remaining pieces. Examples include the 1913-D Type II, 1920-D, 1924-S, and 1926-S;
- Special error coins or unplanned irregularities in the die or minting process. Examples include the 1916 doubled die, the 1918/17-D overdate, the 1937-D three-legged, and the 1936-D with 1/2-legged variety.
See below the top 10 rarest and most valuable buffalo nickels:
10. 1924-S Regular Strike
This date is scarce in circulated, mint state and even lower, as you can imagine, in Gem condition. According to PCGS, there are around three dozen Gem examples known. This explains, together with the charming rusted look, why this is one of the key dates of the Buffalo Nickel series.
The auction record for this key date was broken in 2016 when an MS66+ coin was sold for an incredible $105,750.
9. 1919-S Regular Strike
The 1919-S is scarce in circulated grades, rare in Mint State, and a major rarity in Gem condition. Most of the oddities in the Buffalo nickel series are from the 1918 - 1927 period from San Francisco issues. They are all scarce in Gem MS65 condition, and it is almost impossible to find something better.
According to PCGS, for the 1919-S, only a few dozen Gems are known to the public. Strike can often be a problem, as can a need for decent luster. In Gem condition, the 1919-S is one of the key dates in the Buffalo Nickel series.
An MS66 exemplar was sold for $109,250 in 2006 at Heritage Auctions.
8. 1927-S Regular Strike
The 1927-S is common in lower circulated grades but rare in grades VF20 or higher. It is scarce in mint state and one of the rarest Buffalos in Gem condition.
In Gem MS65 condition, only the 1920-S, 1925-S, and 1926-S are scarcer. Regarding the coin's appearance, the design strike tends to vary from soft to sharp, and the "glow" is pretty subdued on this issue.
The record on auction for this coin was $125,350,00 in 2008.
7. 1918-S Regular Strike
The 1918-S is rare in circulated grades, rare in Mint State, and the rarest in Gem condition. In Gem condition, it is the hardest to find in a regular strike (non-variety) 1913 to 1919 Buffalo nickel.
Strike can be an issue, and many Mint State survivors have hair braids and Buffalo's horn and tail in a weak strike. Luster can be muted or frosty-like.
An MS66 coin was sold for a record value of $125,350 in 2008.
6. 1920-D Regular Strike
The 1920-D is hard to find in circulated grades, rare in mint state, and scarce in Gem condition. This coin is more irregular than all the 1924 to 1938 D Mints, but not the 1927-D, which is equal to the 1920-D in rarity.
This is a challenging date to locate in Gem condition. As you can see on the Buffalo's horn, the strike on this issue ranges from fairly sharp to weak. The luster is usually of the iridescent satiny style.
In 2008, an MS67 coin was sold in an auction for $138,000.
5. 1917-S Regular Strike
The S Mints were rarer in 1913, 1915, and 1917. While the strike can be problematic for the S Mints of the 1920s, the S Mints of the 1913-1917 period, including the 1917-S, enjoy a well-struck appearance. The luster for the 1917-S often displays a beautiful frosty look.
In 2008, an MS67 was sold for $138,000 at Heritage Auctions.
4. 1913-D Type II Regular Strike
The 1913-D Type 2 and 1913-S Type 2 are both low-mintage key dates. The 1913-D is more common than the 1913-S but is one of the most difficult Buffalo nickels to find in circulated conditions. This issue is about equal rarity in mint state and Gem condition to most early Denver and San Francisco issues.
Most examples of the coin are well-struck.
The auction record for this coin graded MS68 was in 2008 when it was sold for $143,750.
3. 1916/16 Buffalo Nickel (Doubled Die Variety)
1916 Doubled Die Buffalo Nickel holds a position of exceptional rarity, making it one of the most sought-after varieties within its series.
1916 Doubled Die showcases clear and unmistakable doubling in various areas, including the date, chin, feathers, throat, and lips of the Native American chief depicted on the coin.
The doubling is predominantly observed on the primary design elements, with the most prominent doubling found in the "16" numerals of the "1916" date. While collectors can easily identify the genuine doubled die, it's important to note that there are other 1916 Buffalo Nickels with less valuable forms of doubling.
Collectors seeking to add this rare buffalo nickel to their collection are advised to purchase examples that have been graded and encapsulated by PCGS. PCGS has certified approximately 200 specimens of this ultra-rare coin.
Most of these examples are in circulated grades, ranging from VG8 to XF40. Uncirculated grades are extremely scarce, with the highest rate achieved being PCGS MS64.
Prices for 1916 Doubled Die Buffalo Nickel span a wide spectrum, with even lower-end specimens graded G4 fetching around $5,000. Those in mid-circulated grades, such as VF20, easily command prices of $15,000. PCGS estimates that only ten examples exist in uncirculated grades.
For instance, a PCGS MS64 specimen fetched an impressive $281,750 bid at an auction in 2004.
See also our list of the top 20 error coins worth money!
2. 1926-S Regular Strike
Between the low population category, this is the most important key date of the buffalo nickel. This coin is the rarest non-variety Buffalo Nickel in mint-state condition. Undoubtedly, it is one of the most important rarities of 20th-century numismatics.
According to PCGS, no coin grading above MS65 is extremely rare.
The auction record is as impressive as the coin itself. An MS66 was sold for $322.000 in 2008!
1. 1918/7-D 5C Buffalo Nickel
The 1918 date was stamped over the 1917 date, and a simple mistake turned this coin into a true numismatic rarity.
According to PCGS, The 1918/7-D Buffalo nickel has been justifiably recognized as one of the most important 20th Century numismatic rarities. It had not been discovered by numismatics until 1930. This dramatic overdate is rare in circulated grades, rare in Mint State, and almost impossible to find in Gem condition.
Note that all genuine 1918/7-D nickels have a mintmark that tilts to the left.
The auction record for this one was in 2006, $350,750 for an MS65 piece.
See below some coins that may not make it to the top 10 best prices but are worth checking out due to their numismatic value.
1937-D 3-Legged Buffalo Nickel
The story of this specimen goes that during the minting process, a mistake occurred due to a malfunctioning coin feeder. This feeder supplies blank planchets (disc-shaped metal blanks) to the coin press, which then strikes the dies (engraved metal pieces) onto the planchets to create the final coin.
In this case, the feeder got stuck and failed to feed any planchets to the press. Dies typically have raised and recessed areas that create the design and details. As a result, the dies received impressions from one another.
Instead of following the appropriate procedure of switching the dies, a relatively inexperienced mint employee attempted to remove the evidence of the clash using an emery stick. An emery stick is a tool for polishing or removing imperfections from metal surfaces.
Unfortunately, the employee's polishing efforts went too far, and he unintentionally removed the details of the bison's front right leg from the reverse die. Consequently, any coins struck using this specific die lacked one of the bison's legs on the reverse side, creating the 3-Legged Buffalo nickel variety.
This variety gained attention among advanced collectors due to its unusual and distinctive error, resulting from the clash and subsequent over-polishing of the dies during the minting process.
The price record was broken in 2021 when a MS66+ specimen was sold for $99,875 at Legend Rare Coin Auctions.
1936-D 3-1/2 legs
The 1936-D 3-1/2 legs variety results from an overpolishing of the reverse die, just like the 1937-D-legged Buffalo, but on a different die where the polishing was not so severe. There are 134 examples certified by PCGS.
See the comparison between the varieties in the images below:
The auction record for this one was in 2009, in which a Denver-issue MS63 piece was sold for $20,700.
For coin collecting newbies, buffalo nickels can be a great option since they are more affordable than a Morgan Dollar, for example. Collecting the 25-year set can prove to be a difficult task since some of the coins are worn off from their years of heavy circulation.
Most of the dates from 1927 onwards are relatively common in lower grades, including the majority of coins minted in Philadelphia. However, coins from the Denver and San Francisco mints from the first mint years and early 1920s tend to be scarcer.
In order to provide some guidance while navigating through the coin collection sea of information, we separated some tips for coin collectors that might be helpful when planning a coin collection:
1. Start Simple
If you are at the beginning of the coin collecting, start with simple or small sets of easy and affordable coins at face value. Making a thousand dollar mistake can ruin your budget and discourage you from the journey.
2. Keep it interesting
Collect pieces that you are interested in. It's easier to study and educate yourself on a subject that matters to you. If you like the coin, you will probably want to learn more about it and be less susceptible to falling into scams.
3. Treat your coins like a treasure
Make sure to handle your coins properly with the proper tools while keeping them in safe storage devices. Some metals tend to react differently with the environment, so keep them correctly stored in order to maintain their condition and, consequently, their value.
4. Invest in knowledge
A Guide Book of United States Coins (the Red Book) is the longest running price guide for U.S. coins. Take time to learn as much as you can about numismatics, not only studying coins but the dynamics of the market as well.
5. Learn how grading works
There are a few different grading scales, but the most common is the Sheldon Scale, which is a 70-point grading scale with 1 being the worst condition and 70 being the perfect mint state. Grading some of your more valuable pieces might give you some safety to ensure that you are getting what you expect from them. Have the coins authenticated by a reputable coin dealer or third-party grading service.
Is the Buffalo Nickel worth anything?
Buffalo nickel prices can vary according to the coin's condition, material, and popularity. According to PCGS, a 1918/7-D 5C Buffalo nickel MS65+ was sold for $350,750 in 2006. Based on PCGS Price Guide, a Buffalo nickel with this type and grade can be worth up to $300,000.00.
What year Buffalo Nickels are worth money?
The ones with low mintage and high-value today are 1913-S Type Two, 1921-S, 1924-S, and 1926-S. The irregular or error ones are the 1916 Double Die, the 1918/17-D overdate, the 1937-D three-legged variety, and the 1936-D with 3 1/2-legged variety.
How much is a Buffalo Nickel worth with no date?
According to PCGS, a Buffalo nickel without a date or with partial dates can be worth between 15 and 25 cents each. (source: https://www.pcgs.com/resources/guides/Buffalo_Nickel-web.pdf)
Why is a 1935 Buffalo Nickel worth so much?
Buffalo Nickels in 1935 were not produced in large quantities, and finding them in great condition is especially hard, mainly if they have some unique error. For example, in 2007, a Doubled Die Reverse MS65 was sold in an auction for $104,650.
Are Buffalo Nickels silver?
In short, no. Buffalo nickels were minted from 1913–1938, and their composition consists of 75% copper and 25% nickel. Nickels only had silver in their composition during World War II (1942 to 1945).
How much is a 2005 Buffalo Nickel worth?
According to the USA Coin Book, the estimated value of 2005-P Jefferson Nickels (American Bison Variety) are Worth $0.40 to $1.46 in Uncirculated (MS+) Mint Condition.
Where is the date on a buffalo nickel?
The date on buffalo nickels can be found on the obverse of the coin, on the Native American’s shoulder. Since the date is placed on a raised place of the design, it tends to wear out easily in daily transactions.
How much is a 1936 Buffalo Nickel worth?
According to the NGC Price Guide, as of July 2023, a Buffalo Nickel from 1936 in the circulated condition is worth between $0.50 and $20. However, note that on the open market, 1936 Nickels in pristine, uncirculated condition sell for as much as $37,500.