No one enjoys a good story like an avid coin collector. The story behind a coin may be personal, such as how you found the coin or which relative gave it to you. Or, a coin’s tale may be related to a globally significant event. War nickels fit this description beautifully, and you may have your own personal story of discovery, too. Their stories are embedded in personal, American, and world history. So naturally, war nickels have fascinated coin collectors for decades.
The details of war nickels may seem commonplace. After all, these coins are just five-cent pieces. You can see nickels that look just the same in common use today – at least at first glance. Yet, war nickels are different in ways that you might not notice immediately. Here are the coin details to pay attention to when you have a coin that might be a war nickel.
Design of the War Nickel
The main components of war nickels’ design were no different from any of the Jefferson nickels that were minted from 1938 to 2004. In 1938, the U.S. Mint announced a competition to create the best design for the nickel. It had to feature a portrait of Jefferson on the front and a picture of Monticello on the back. The winner would receive $1,000. Felix Schlag, a coin designer who had immigrated from Germany, won the contest. After several revisions, the coin was first minted on October 3, 1938.
The obverse features a left-facing bust of President Thomas Jefferson. On the left side of the coin is the motto “In God We Trust.” On the right side of the coin are the word “Liberty” and the date.
The reverse of the coin features Monticello, the plantation Thomas Jefferson worked on designing and constructing the building starting after he inherited land outside Charlottesville, Virginia from his father at the age of 26. Monticello is seen spread across the reverse of the Jefferson nickel, with its name stamped below it. Under the estate image are the denomination of “FIVE CENTS” and the country, “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.’ Above Monticello is the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM.”
The coin edge is plain and smooth. The diameter of the nickel is 21.2 mm.
War Nickel Dates and Mint Marks
There are only four year-dates for war nickels. They are 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945. If you have a Jefferson nickel with one of these dates, it’s likely a war nickel. However, minting of war nickels didn’t start until mid-1942, so those made in early 1942 were not war nickels.
On most Jefferson nickels prior to 2004, the mint mark was placed on the reverse of the coin, on the right side of the image of Monticello. The Jefferson nickel was struck at three mints: The Philadelphia Mint with not mint mark, the San Francisco Mint with mint mark S, and the Denver Mint with mint mark D. The nickel coins that were struck in Philadelphia had no mint mark, either before or after the war years.
For the silver alloy war nickel, however, a larger mint mark was placed above Monticello. For these years, the Philadelphia Mint placed a large “P” above Monticello. This was the first time the mint mark “P” was used on any American coin.
Composition of War Nickels
The most important thing that makes war nickels different is their composition. Other Jefferson nickels are composed of 75% copper and 25% nickel. War nickels are composed of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. The silver in a war nickel amounts to .05626 troy ounces of silver. If you had a dollar worth of war nickels, you would have over 1.125 troy ounces of silver.
History of War NickelsThe history of the Jefferson nickel in the generic sense is a story of coin design and minting – relatively tame stuff. However, the tale of the war nickel carries all the excitement of a good war story.
World War II Begins
On December 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Congress obliged immediately. Just three days after that declaration, Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S. When that happened, Congress declared war on Germany and Italy.
Suddenly, America was fighting a war on two continents. All over the country, through all the industries and personal lives, the focus shifted. Before, resources were used for individual and commercial uses. Now, all needed resources were to be funneled into the war effort. That meant sacrifices for families and businesses alike, but the response to the war needs was incredible.
Congress Authorizes the New Composition
As everyone worked to get the great war machine going, Congress made many changes in the way businesses had to be run. At the same time, they worked tirelessly to adapt the government’s activities to contribute to the war effort.
One of these changes was the introduction of a Jefferson nickel with a different composition. The reason for the change? Nickel was now considered a strategic metal. Since U.S. residents still needed five-cent pieces, there would have to be a new type that didn’t contain nickel.
To eliminate any additional time, effort, and expense that would have come with designing a new coin, Congress only approved changing the composition of the coin and not its design. The result was a nickel with the same portrait of Thomas Jefferson and image of Monticello but with no nickel metal in its composition at all. These coins are what are now known as war nickels.
What Made Nickel a Strategic Metal?
Nickel was an extremely important metal during World War II. Nickel is a very useful metal, because of its strength and its hardness. It is highly ductile, so it can be stretched out or hammered thin. Also, it is resistant to corrosion and maintains its strength under high temperatures.
World War II was mechanized in a way that no prior war ever had been before. Their equipment was more advanced; it had to be if they were to have a chance to win the war. The military needed equipment that could stand up to the demands of war.
Nickel was crucial in the making of many of the weapons used in World War II. These included guns, which needed nickel for their control assemblies. Anti-aircraft guns and ordinance were made using nickel alloys as well.
Submarines and battleships had many nickel alloy parts and nickel steels. Aircraft used nickel, too. The B-29 Superfortress used a wide range of nickel alloy parts, including fasteners, exhausts, oil cooling units, instruments, and weaponry. Portable bridges were made from nickel alloys and used in the invasion of Germany.
Tanks needed armor plating to withstand the barrage of fire they would be subjected to in battle. These were most useful in the European Theater.
Invasion Landing Crafts
In the Pacific Theater, most battles were amphibious. The soldiers needed hardy landing crafts that could withstand corrosion from salt water. These crafts had nickel alloy parts. Submarines and aircraft carriers had metal steels in their hulls, propeller shafts, valve and pump parts, and gas and water tanks.
How to Recognize a War Nickel
If you’ve seen any nickel from 1938 to 2004, you know what the overall design of the coin looks like. Distinguishing a war nickel from other Jefferson nickels is fairly easy with just the date and mint mark. The date should be 1942, 1943, 1944, or 1945; the P, S, or D mint mark should be large and located above Monticello.
There are a few other clues that can tell you that you should probably check the date and mint mark of your Jefferson nickel. A war nickel looks darker than other nickels and have a greenish cast. That is because the silver in the coins is vulnerable to oxidation.
There were a few war nickels that had errors in their minting. There were 1943 nickels that were struck with a 3 over the 2, because the die was not changed correctly at the beginning of 1943. There were also double-die obverse nickels in 1943 with P mint mark. In 1945, there was a double-die reverse with the P mint mark.
It may seem odd that a counterfeiter would both with making fake 5-cent pieces. Yet, it has been done before. Francis LeRoy Henning produced counterfeit nickels with the 1944 date but without the large P mint mark. He produced these coins in 1954. To recognize these fakes, look for the small mint mark to the right of the coin and an empty space above Monticello. No such coins were minted by the U.S. Mint in 1944.
Value of War Nickels
The monetary value of a war nickel can range from 80 cents to over $1,200! If you have an unusual variety, the best way to find out the exact amount you can get for the coin is by talking to a coin dealer who understands the significance of the date, mint mark, silver content, and variety of the coin you have. You may need to send a photo of the coin or even send it in to be graded.
At GMRgold, we have a large inventory of collectible coins. We also help coin collectors buy and sell valuable collector coins, including war nickels and a wide range of other U.S. and world coins. Call us at 1 (877) 795-9585 to learn more about war nickels and other collectible coin options. Or, fill out our contact form, and we’ll get back to you with information and help when you need it.