Counterfeit Detection: 1879 Shield Nickel

Posted on 3/9/2021

This poor imitation of a key-date nickel has numerous problems, including its year.

The 1879 Shield Nickel is one of the key dates for this short-lived series that followed the Civil War. Price guides suggest Mint State examples should be worth well over $1,000. Shield Nickels were notoriously poorly struck as their hard composition of 75% copper and 25% nickel was not kind to the US Mint’s machinery.

Genuine 1879 Shield Nickel graded NGC MS 63
Click images to enlarge

The NGC grading team recently received a purported example of an 1879 Shield Nickel that appears to have been frustrating for whoever struck it. Both sides of the fake coin show plenty of problems that resulted from a weak strike and poor details on the die.

Counterfeit 1879 Shield Nickel
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The date looks particularly messy and wobbly, especially when compared to the genuine article. Even if the counterfeiter had done a better job with the date, the area surrounding it is covered in spikes. These “tool marks” are evidence that the fake coin had a significant problem in this area that required extra work on the part of the counterfeiter.

Close-up view of date on genuine (left) and counterfeit (right)
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In addition, the letters and other design elements of the counterfeit seem to meld into fields. The letters in particular are shallow and rounded rather than well-struck with flat surfaces on their tops.

Close-up view of top of obverse on genuine (left) and counterfeit (right)
Click images to enlarge

There are odd lines along the stars and along the sides of some of the letters, like the ‘T’ seen here. That letter is also missing some of its thinnest parts. This is likely due to how the dies were made.

Close-up view of top of reverse on genuine (left) and counterfeit (center), and the second T in STATES of the counterfeit (right)
Click images to enlarge

The counterfeiter did get the weight correct: 4.95 grams, which is within tolerance and demonstrates that a scale alone is rarely sufficient when judging authenticity. However, a metallurgical analysis finds this fake coin is short on both its elements. Instead of having the expected 75% copper and 25% nickel (which is the same as a modern nickel), the counterfeit is 61% copper, 13% nickel and 26% zinc.

If you aren’t sure whether a coin is the real deal, please remember that NGC backs its determinations of authenticity and grade with the NGC Guarantee.

Did you know? NGC has created a comprehensive Counterfeit Detection resource to help collectors and dealers identify counterfeit and altered coins. Visit

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