The Demise of the Buffalo Nickel

In 1904, in an attempt to beautify many of the American coins, President Theodore Roosevelt hired Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign all the coins. At that time, a law was in affect requireing all coin designs to be in circulation for at least 25 years. As a result, Saint-Guadens was only able to redesign the cent and the four gold pieces in use at the time. It was not until the son of Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh wrote a letter to his father in 1911 that the idea for a new nickel was born.  Eames MacVeagh thought his father’s term might be more memorable if a new coin had been minted during his time in office. After turning down several designs, Mint director Abram Andrew fell in love with the one submitted by James Earle Fraser featuring a profile view of a Native American on its obverse and an American buffalo on its reverse (see our previous blog entry for more information).

By Brandon Grossardt (Actual coin) [Public domain, GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Brandon Grossardt (Actual coin) [Public domain, GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Type I

By Brandon Grossardt for image. James Earle Fraser for design of reverse. (Actual coin) [Public domain, GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Brandon Grossardt for image. James Earle Fraser for design of reverse. (Actual coin) [Public domain, GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons Type I

The Buffalo Nickel was problematic even before it came into circulation.  Although the design was approved in 1912, it was not issued until February 1913 because mechanisms created by the Hobbs Manufacturing Company used to detect counterfeit coins in nickel operated vending machines would no longer work.  The US Treasury and Hobbs Manufacturing were unable to come up with an agreed upon solution, but the coin was issued regardless.  This is a problem that was never fully solved and, as a result, many counterfeits were circulated, making retailers and banks nervous.

Shortly after its release, people started complaining.  The New York Times wrote, “The new ‘nickel’ is a striking example of what a coin intended for wide circulation should not be …[it] is not pleasing to look at when new and shiny, and will be an abomination when old and dull.”  People also felt the Native American’s head was too large and that the Buffalo should be removed all together.

The subject matter itself was even called into question.  Most Native Americans had been moved onto reservations and the majority of the American Buffalo population had been killed off to the point of near extinction.

In addition to complaints about the look of the coin, problems quickly arose with it’s engraving.  Charles Barber, chief engraver at the mint noticed that the dies used to produce the coin were being used up three times faster than those of it’s predecessor, the Liberty nickel.  They were struggling to supply all the mints with enough dies to keep up with the demand. Because the two places most likely to wear were the date and denomination, there was also concern that the value would be completely worn off.

To address these concerns, Fraser made a few revisions that would hopefully combat some of the issues with wear.  The Buffalo went from standing on a hill to standing on flat ground, and the words “five cents” were made larger. This version is commonly known as a type II (see below) Buffalo nickel. Over the next few years, the thickness of the date was increased several times, but they were never able to fully solve the problem.  Today, it is not uncommon to come across Buffalo nickels with no date.


Type II


Type II

In 1916, the design was modified again in attempt to make the dies last longer (see below). The word “liberty” was given more emphasis and the Native American’s nose was slightly elongated. Despite the changes, the dies seemed to only wear faster.  Most collectors don’t consider this a third type.


Unofficial Type III


Unofficial Type III

In 1937, at the Denver mint, the dies ran into yet another problem.  A worker was trying to remove the scuff marks from the dies that occur if they are stored too closely to each other, and accidentally rubbed a little too much off the die.  This resulted in the famous “three legged buffalo” (see below).  The error was not caught until thousands of nickels had already been minted and circulated.  Three legged buffalo coins are widely collected, with a lower grade one starting at around $400.  They move up rapidly in price from there, depending on condition and can sell for more than $1000.


Three Legged Buffalo

The 25 year moratorium on this coin came up in 1938 and a competition to replace it was quickly announced.  The Jefferson nickel was announced shortly there after and began circulation in November 1938.

Today, although no longer in circulation, the Buffalo nickel’s influence is still felt.   They are used to make jewelry, furniture and other accessories and are a common image for tattoos, business logos and other art work.  In 2006, the US mint released a replica of the nickel in the form of a $50 gold piece.  Despite the many issues during its time in circulation, the Buffalo nickel has grown to become arguably the most iconic of the American coins.

Check out our Ebay listings for Buffalo nickels here.

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