The Wartime Silver "Nickels" of 1942-45, Part Two

Posted on 4/17/2008

David W. Lange continues his discussion of the history of wartime nickels, along with the numismatic opportunities that these coins have created.

The copper-silver-manganese alloy used for the wartime issue of five-cent pieces was far more successful than the zinc-plated steel employed for the cents in 1943. A return to the normal copper-nickel alloy of the “nickel” was not contemplated until the end of 1945, at which time the Treasury’s authority to use emergency compositions expired. Thus, all of the 1943–45 Jeffersons were of the wartime composition and bore the distinctive large mintmarks placed directly above the dome of Monticello.

When new, these coins displayed the same color as contemporary silver dimes, quarters, and halves. Their low silver content, however, destined them to suffer the same fate as any “billon” coinage — to become very dark over time. As long as the coins remained in steady circulation, this darkening was kept in check by continual contact with other pieces, but any period of idleness (such as being placed in coin folders and albums) prompted an ever-deepening gold toning that eventually became slate-gray or even black. The general public took little notice of this, using the coins interchangeably with those of the regular composition for the next 25 years. It was not until their silver value equaled and then exceeded their face value in the late 1960s that wartime nickels began to disappear from circulation. By this time, they were very heavily worn, as the emergency alloy was not as durable as the usual composition.

One minor problem with the 1942–45 composition was its tendency to not mix evenly, and this resulted in a higher-than-normal rate of planchet laminations. These are seen as slightly elevated ridges or flakes on either side of the coin where gases trapped within the awkward alloy pushed the surface of the planchet outward during the compression of striking. The more dramatic examples are prized by mint error collectors, while the lesser laminations are simply a nuisance that will result in a “no grade” declaration from the various certification services.

For the variety collector, the wartime nickels provided a number of obvious and very collectable issues. Foremost among these is the 1943/2-P overdate. As with all modern overdates, this one resulted from the application of hubs bearing different dates during the die-sinking process. Typically, such overdating occurs in the fall, when the Engraving Department is preparing dies for both the current and next year’s coinage, and two mismatched hubs are used to fully impress the die.

Another highly sought variety is found on Philadelphia Mint nickels dated 1943. On such coins, Jefferson’s eye appears doubled, as the impressions from the hub in sinking this die were out of alignment with one another. Similar varieties are known for the reverse dies of some 1945-P nickels. There are at least three popular doubled-die reverses for this issue, the most desirable of which shows prominent doubling in all of the lettering below the Monticello structure. Lesser varieties are also known for several other issues of the wartime coinage, but the ones listed above are the ones that appeal to a broad range of collectors and bring premium prices.

There are a total of eleven date/mint issues for the 1942–45 wartime nickels, and this group has long been popular as a “short set” within the Jefferson series. Widely marketed in both worn and uncirculated grades, they are a theme collection by themselves or in combination with the three steel cents of 1943 and the six “shellcase” alloy cents of 1944–45.

As with all USA coins from these years, the wartime nickels were widely saved by the roll when new. None of the coins are rare in uncirculated condition, though a number of rarities have emerged in the highest grade levels. As of April 1, 2008, a total of just 49 examples for all dates had been graded MS-68 by Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, and none finer. Nearly a third of these MS-68 pieces were dated 1943-P.

An important factor in the grading of uncirculated Jefferson nickels is the degree of sharpness in the building’s steps. This area of the reverse design is opposite the highest point of relief on the obverse, leaving most currency coins poorly struck at this point. Seeking the path of least resistance, the planchet metal failed to fill the deeper recesses of the dies in the single strike typical of non-proofs. The six steps of Monticello are incomplete for most coins, with the lowest ones being weak or not visible at all. As with Full Bell Lines on Franklin halves or Full Bands on Mercury dimes, the collecting of Jefferson nickels having Full Steps has developed a small but determined following among specialists.

The definition of Full Steps will vary from one certification service to another. NGC defines two degrees of this feature, labeling nickels that qualify as either “5FS” or “6FS” for the total number of steps that are complete. The former are very well-struck coins on which the lowermost step is not quite full, while 6FS coins are the ultimate in sharp strikes, with each and every step complete from one side of the staircase to the other. For the wartime nickels, most examples displaying either 5FS or 6FS are Denver Mint coins, with Philadelphia coins being much scarcer and San Francisco nickels being genuinely rare.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in The Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association