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Mark Alters Full Step Designation
By F. Michael Fazzari, Numismatic News
February 12, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Have you ever tried to explain some of the nuances of coin grading to a novice collector that don’t make any logical sense? I have. The last time occurred at the ICG table during the recent F.U.N. Show in Orlando with regard to strike designations on slabs.

Some readers may not be aware that the major grading services usually attend major coin shows in order to accept submissions – in many cases made up of coins purchased the same day at the show. As a service to the public and dealers, ICG always has at least one senior grader in attendance who will give a free verbal opinion of your coin’s grade and authenticity.

It’s unfortunate that this service is not provided on a regular basis during all hours of the show by the two largest grading services. It would make a good educational addition to any show while providing both dealers and collectors with more than one professional appraisal of their coins. While examining coins at our table, I always try to spend extra time teaching those customers who are not in a rush, what to look for on their coin as far as its authenticity and grade. Let me say here that I do not agree with all the practices that have been incorporated into today’s grading standards as grading has evolved; yet I must follow them and pass them on to new collectors.

For example, one of the design details found on the reverse of Jefferson nickels are the steps on Monticello. These steps are sharp and complete (full) on most Proofs but vary in strength on Mint State coins due to various causes that are usually combined under the term “Weak Strike.”

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The design of the nickel features six steps. In the past, a coin showing five steps was considered to be fully struck. You can find nickels in graded slabs designated “FS” (full steps), “6 Steps” and “5 Steps.” Some older slabs from one grading service show a “5 ½ Step” designation. Why all the fuss about steps? It’s because collectors want the “best.” Some Jefferson nickels are very rare with full steps. Therefore, desirability and rarity drive the price up for these coins.

With a little magnification, it is easy to determine the number of steps on a nickel once you learn how to count them. Figure 1 is a micrograph of a fully struck, 6 Step, Cameo Proof nickel.

You can think of the incuse lines as the top of each step and the surface where the pillars rest as the first step. Start with the top and count down the lines. Figure 2 is a drawing of the steps as they would appear in a side view. I’ve numbered each step. The lines must be complete and not run together anywhere along their length.

Unfortunately, not much about grading is simple anymore because money is involved. Rather than describing the actual condition of a coin, grading has become a shorthand indication of its value. Perhaps the futility of this approach can be seen when four similar coins graded the same by a major grading service bring four different prices in the same auction.


In the search for perfection, numismatists have decided that a fully struck Jefferson nickel cannot be designated as “Full Steps” if there is even a single mark across the steps (Figure 3)! How absurd is that?


A similar problem exists regarding strike designations for Mercury dimes and Franklin halves. One dealer recently told me that one expert numismatist believes that a mark across the steps should only be counted if it is deep enough to reach down to the base of any step line.

Please, let’s get back to the simplicity of the past. Contact marks are one aspect of the total grading equation and the detail present on a coin due to its strike is another. If a coin has marks across the steps, downgrade it for that. If it is weakly struck and missing complete step detail, downgrade for that. Don’t complicate it.

Grading should make sense. If you look at a nickel and it has full steps, it should rate the FS designation. That would make sense to everyone – novice and professional alike. What does not make sense is to tell a collector that his fully struck gem does not get the Full Step, Full Band, Full Bell Line designation due to one tiny mark across the lines. Some will point out that a coin with marks on the steps is not worth the same amount of money as a coin with no marks; but so what? The coin deserves to be graded by what anyone can see. As long as the steps are complete, let the marketplace determine what it is worth.

Perhaps things will change in the future as prices for fully struck coins continue to rise. Collectors might keep this in mind and pursue those under-appreciated fully struck coins in slabs that don’t meet today’s standard for a full strike because of a mark across lines of detail.

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