Thomas Jefferson has been on the nickel since 1938, replacing the Buffalo design. We call it a nickel, although it is technically a 5 cent piece. But over the years the vernacular has taken over and it is safe to say that if you called the coin a ”5 cent piece” instead of a “nickel” you will get a few odd looks.
The term nickel was given to the coin based on the metal composition of the coin. This, however, may also be a misnomer…as the coin is only 25% nickel and 75% Copper. That is the same composition since 1866, the inception of the nickel ”nickel”, the Shield nickel.
In 1942 the USA needed all the copper and nickel it could get as it ramped up for the war efforts. On October 8, 1942 the first ”war” nickels were produced. The new composition was 56% copper, 35% silver and 9% manganese. The new composition was used all the way through the 1945 calendar year. This means that both types of nickels were made in 1942.
Along with the change in composition the decision was made to move the mint mark to above Monticello on the reverse of the coin. This is one easy way to distinguish the coin from its predecessor. This was the first coin to have a ”P” mint mark on the coin. Up until that time coins from Philadelphia had no mint mark. The new coins also have a different look to them, both in circulated and uncirculated conditions. The coins are brighter in new condition and are darker in used condition than their nickel counterparts.
The new war nickels were struck at all three mints (Denver, San Francisco, Philadelphia) over the span of 4 years for a total of 11 different issues. The combined mintages for all coins approaches a billion pieces. Today the circulated pieces still trade based on their silver content of 5.6% of an ounce per coin. With the current silver spot price at $19.40 that means each coin has just over $1 in silver in it.
In uncirculated grades the coins can be purchased for $10 each, on average. Gem examples can be more costly. The war nickels make a great collection because they are inexpensive and their are only 11 to complete the set. When you don’t have to worry about your wallet it makes the thrill of the hunt all the more enjoyable.
Their are many collectible varieties for the war nickels. The most popular, as listed in the Red book, are the 1943 (P) 3 over 2 variety, the 1943 P Double Eye and the 1945 P Double Die Reverse.
This variety is hard to identify, as it has a small tail from the bottom of the 3 that heads to the middle of the three. If you look at enough worn out 1943 P nickels you’ll swear they all are this variety! If you can find this variety it is likely to fetch you $25 to $250.
1943 P Double Eye. This one is hard to see….it will come to you….just think about it…. but has a nice return as they trade at $20-$200. The fun part about this variety is you still have a chance to find it, as most dealers won’t have the time or want to go through war nickels for varieties.
1945 Double Die Reverse. This is one of my favorites because it is a visible doubling that is not that expensive. You can see the doubling with the naked eye or a 5x loupe. The doubling is most noticeable in the “O” in Monticello and the “S” in cents. They range in price from $10 to $100.