Quick Facts about the Buffalo Nickel

1937 Buffalo Nickel with "D" mint mark in circulated condition, showing signs of normal wear

1937 Buffalo Nickel with “D” mint mark in circulated condition, showing signs of normal wear

  • Designed by James Earle Fraser, sculptor and former assistant to Augustus Saint Gaudens
  • Also often called the Indian Head Nickel
  • Minted from 1913 to 1938, with no nickels minted in 1921 because of the recession
  • Produced at three mints (Philadelphia, San Francisco, Denver)
  • Originally intended as a one-cent coin, but the cent had already been redesigned, so Mint officials asked Fraser to adapt his ideas into a five-cent coin
  • Replaced Charles Barber’s Liberty Head nickel, which had been minted from 1883 to 1913
  • Composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel (coin expert Stuart Mosher once wrote that he didn’t know why it was called a Buffalo Nickel except that “the name is preferable to ‘Bison copper'”)
  • Measures 21.21 millimeters in diameter and 5 grams in weight — exactly the same size and weight as the Liberty Head Nickel — with a smooth, plain border intended to aid the manufacturers of coin-operated machines
  • Wore badly over time — the raised design, especially the date, often wore right off
  • Used again as the design on a 2001 commemorative silver dollar, and again in 2006 on American Buffalo gold bullion pieces
  • In what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to improve the durability of the raised areas of the Buffalo Nickel’s design, Charles Barber, Chief Engraver at the Philadelphia Mint, modified the design soon after it started production
  • One of only three U.S. coins that feature realistic portraits of Native Americans (the other two are the half eagle/quarter eagle of 1908 designed by Bela Lyon Pratt and the Sacagawea dollar of 2000 to the present designed by Glenna Goodacre)
  • The Native American profile on the obverse side is thought to be a composite portrait of three or more Native American chiefs (Two Moons, Big Tree, Iron Tail, and possibly others that were never named)
  • The buffalo (North American bison) on the reverse side of the coin may have been Black Diamond of the Central Park Zoo, although there is some controversy about this
  • Still occasionally found in circulation, even today
  • Over one billion Buffalo Nickels were struck before the Buffalo Nickel was replaced by the Jefferson Nickel
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