Buffalo Nickels (1913-1938)
Featuring America's Only Obverse & Reverse Coin Design Inspired by the Western Frontier
Issued from 1913 to 1938, the unique Buffalo nickel was an instant hit with consumers and collectors – and remains so to this day. Its designer, James Earle Fraser, experienced the 19th-century Western Frontier as the son of a railroad engineer in South Dakota. When invited in 1911 to submit a design for a new U.S. nickel, he deliberately chose a composite of three Native American chiefs for the obverse and a buffalo for the nickel's reverse.
How Nickel Found Its Way Into the Buffalo Nickel
As a denomination, the nickel has always been a versatile coin, though it wasn't always five cents. It was first issued in 1865 as a three-cent coin struck in 75% copper and 25% nickel. The shiny grey nickel metal was visually more pronounced than the brown copper, was more durable than silver, and wore better. It was only a matter of time before the word "nickel" and the need for a durable five-cent coin melded into daily vocabulary.
Next came the Buffalo Nickel's early 20th century design. Said Fraser, "My first objective was to produce a coin which was truly American, and that could not be confused with the currency of any other country..."
"...And, in my search for symbols, I found no motif within the boundaries of the United States so distinctive as the American buffalo," he added. Fraser's initial "F" appears below the date on the Buffalo Nickel's obverse.
On the Buffalo Nickel's reverse, the bearded beast is technically a bison; buffalos, which don't have beards, were only found in Asia and Africa at the time European explorers were discovering America's great plains over 200 years ago and noticed herds of the massive animals. Each mint's mark is found on the reverse, just below the words "five cents".
Check out the recently discovered link between the classic Buffalo nickel and the brand-new American Innovation Dollar Series from the U.S. Mint in our Heads & Tails blog.
The Buffalo Nickel was struck at three mints: Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. From 1913-1916 Matte Proof Buffalo Nickels were struck for collectors, Mirror Proof thereafter. Very rare from 1913 was Fraser's original "raised ground" design for the Buffalo Nickel and the modified, or more linear, "flat ground" that better accommodated the words "five cents" on the Buffalo nickel.
Among the highly sought-after varieties relating to reverse designs are the:
- 1935 double-die "five cents" and, to a slightly lesser degree, "e pluribus unum"
- 1937-D die error that resulted in a three-and-a-half legged Buffalo
- 1938 double-punch of mint marks resulting in "D" Over "D" and "D" Over "S"