After the introduction of the flying eagle cent, nickel mine owners were anxious to get their base metal into the U.S. coinage system. Nickel-3-cents began minting in 1865 but did not command the demand for nickel as hoped leading mine owners to seek larger denominations. Finally, in 1866 their needs were answered with the introduction of the Shield 5 Cent Nickel.
The Shield 5 Cent Nickel is a case of being in the right time and place. With a coinage shortage from the effects of the Civil War, the new coin was quickly accepted by the public despite its lack of silver content. Unlike the odd denominations of 2 and 3 cent coins, demand did not quickly wane as the five cent denomination represented a practical coin with decent purchasing power for everyday business transactions. With no hoarding and a practical use, the nickel 5 cent coin would become a mainstay in U.S. coinage.
Designed by James B. Longacre, the Shield 5 Cent coin had a composition of 75% copper and 25% nickel which is still used today in modern 5 cent coins.
The obverse design features an ornamented shield, topped with a symbolic cross (often described as the cross of the Order of Calatrava, an old military/religious order in Spain, though this attribution is subject to debate), flanked on both sides by laurel leaves, and lying above and in front of two crossed arrows at the bottom. Along the top is the motto IN GOD WE TRUST.
The reverse sports a simple design that features a large numeral 5 is in the center, from which thirteen six-point stars encircle the numeral 5 (13 stars were representative of the original 13 states of the Union). The legend “United States of America” is positioned at the top half of the periphery, with the word “Cents” at the bottom edge. Two dots, one on each side, are equally spaced between the two text legends. There are no mint marks as all coins were minted at the Philadelphia Mint.
Two major varieties exist for the series. Initially (1866), the reverse design featured rays between the thirteen stars and radiating outward from the 5 to form an encircling wreath (Variety 1). The hardness of nickel made minting difficult so the rays were removed later in 1867 to increase minting rates (Variety 2).
- Variety 1 with Rays (1866 - 1867)
- Variety 2 No Rays (1867 - 1883)
General Market Notes
There are no extremely rare coins issued for circulation and many years had decent mintages making the series readily available and affordable to all types of collectors.
For collectors on a low budget look at the first few years of production from 1866 to 1869 for the least expensive examples in a grade of fine to very fine.
For investors The key to the series (excluding proofs) is the 1880 issue and the semi-key years are: 1879 and 1881. If you include proofs then the key is the 1877 proof.
Looking for a sleeper? Look at the 1875 issue. With a mintage of 2,097,000, examples in a grade of VF or better are difficult to come by. This is a case where mintages do not always tell the entire story, the 1883 issue carries a lower mintage at 1,451,500 but it was saved in larger numbers since it was a last year coin and is more available to collectors than the 1875 issue.