Buffalo Nickels

Issued from 1913 to 1938, unique Buffalo nickels (sometimes called Indian Head nickels) were an instant hit with consumers and collectors – and they remain so to this day. Their 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. Buffalo nickels remain the only circulating coins whose obverse and reverse coin designs were inspired by the western frontier, and you can buy Buffalo nickels now at Littleton Coin!

How Nickel Found Its Way Into Buffalo Nickels

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.

The first nickel five-cent coins, the Shield nickels, were struck from 1866-1883 and followed by the Liberty Head nickels of 1883-1913. Next came the Buffalo nickel coin and its 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 featured the iconic animal prominently on his coin's reverse. Technically, the bearded beast depicted on Buffalo nickels is a bison. Buffaloes, which don't have beards, were only found in Asia and Africa over 200 years ago when European explorers were discovering America's great plains and noticed herds of the massive animals. Each mint's mark is found on the reverse, just below the words five cents.

The Buffalo nickel coin has an equally distinctive obverse design. It bears a proud profile of a Native American chief, which Fraser created as a composite of three actual chiefs. For this reason, the coins are also known by a second name – Indian Head nickels. Fraser's initial "F" appears below the date.

Interestingly, there is a link between the designs for classic Buffalo nickels and the U.S. Mint's American Innovation dollar series that debuted in 2018. You can read all about it in our Heads & Tails blog.

Issuing Mints

Buffalo nickels were struck at three mints: Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. From 1913-1916, Matte Proof Buffalo nickels were struck for collectors, and then Mirror Proof thereafter. Very rare from 1913 was Fraser's original "raised ground" design for Buffalo nickels and the modified, or more linear, "flat ground" that better accommodated the words five cents on the Buffalo nickel coin.

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"