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War Nickels Make a Compact Set
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
April 12, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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We all like to collect. Part of the fun is being able to actually complete a collection. Usually that is not easy and to many the challenge is important. That said, it can also be too hard or simply impossible for many of us to complete most sets in the grade we would like.

A change of pace is sometimes warranted. That change of pace can be provided by wartime Jefferson nickels produced 1942-1945. They make an interesting collecting option as they form what we might call a mini-set that just about anyone can complete in the grade desired.

War nickel sets are fascinating pieces of history. They are the product of World War II when for a time it seemed that America’s back was against the wall as we faced Nazis in Europe and a militarist Japan in Asia.

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To fight the war required all our resources and all our skill. Of those resources, nickel and copper were on the list. These were the two metals used in the nickel. Silver was not a necessary war materiel. A composition change to the 5-cent piece was the result as silver and manganese were added, nickel removed and copper reduced.

The result of the alloy was a small set of 11 coins.

It might be that over the years the idea of a collection of war nickels has increased slightly in popularity. To a youngster growing up in the 1950s as I did, the special wartime nickels were simply a part of a regular Jefferson nickel collection. They were interesting and there were special holders available for the wartime nickels, but few would have thought of them as a special collection. After all, there were no mintages in the group of less than 10 million and even in the early 1960s almost every date could be found easily in circulation.

All of this has changed. World War II is a much more distant memory. You cannot assemble a war nickel collection today from circulation and with the modest Mint State prices there would be little reason to try as the set is inexpensive and readily obtainable from the nation’s coin dealers.

In addition, there seems to be a far greater appreciation today of the “Greatest Generation,” and the effort the war represented and that makes a special set and one in top grade seem more desirable than might have been the case back in the 1950s. Having a little bit of silver in the coins doesn’t hurt either in making these seem more desirable now.

The whole story of the war nickel is really part of the bigger story of the first days of World War II. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941, had damaged or sunk a total of 21 ships, leaving the United States in a very difficult situation.

A declaration of war on Japan the next day had to be backed up with actions. The Pacific Fleet was in sore need of building up. With Germany’s surprise declaration of war against the United States on Dec. 11, the military threat grew.

While much of the attention would be turned toward Europe, as Great Britain and the United States determined that the Nazis were a greater threat, that did nothing to diminish the threat in the Pacific. There was a very real fear that the Japanese might follow up their air attack and capture Hawaii and even portions of the West Coast.

Moreover, at the time the United States entered the war there was not much hope it would make a major difference as its military was not even ranked in the top 10 in the world and other more highly ranked militaries had already been defeated by German attack. Whatever difference the United States was to make in the war would not come quickly or easily.

One of the first priorities was to acquire the needed materiel for fighting the war. It was one thing to draft a large number of men to fight the war, but it was something else again to give them the equipment they would need.

It was quickly determined that a number of metals might prove to be both vital and in short supply. That list would include the copper and nickel used in American coinage.

Finding alternative compositions for both the cent and the nickel was given a high priority.

The nickel changed first as part of 1942’s output was made of the new alloy of 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver and 9 percent manganese. The standard copper component then and even today is 75 percent copper. The 25 percent share that was made of nickel was eliminated entirely.

The new nickel’s design following a tradition stretching back many years was changed a bit to indicate the change of alloy. This was something done in 1834 when the weight of gold coins was reduced, and in 1853 and 1873 when the weight of silver coins was altered.

While there was no law that required special markings, that had been the tradition. So nickels made of the new composition were given very large mintmarks placed above the dome of Monticello on the reverse. In addition, nickels produced at Philadelphia, which traditionally carried no mintmark, were given a large “P” mintmark.

When the composition was changed back to the traditional one in 1946, mintmarks returned to their small size and to their location to the right of Monticello. And the Philadelphia Mint nickels once again had no mintmark at all until 1980.

Interestingly enough, the wartime nickels would prove to be far more successful than similar efforts made with the cent. The 1943 zinc-coated steel cents proved unpopular with the public as they were sometimes confused with the dime. So after just one year, 1943, of steel, copper returned to the cent in the form of recycled shell casings, which the public could not tell from the regular cent composition.

What the special 1942-1945 nickels and 1943 cents shared was a most unusual position as special coins reflecting a great national crisis. In the history of the United States, special changes in coins to reflect a crisis are rare.

At the beginning of the Civil War, a Rev. M.R. Watkinson of Ridleyville, Pa., had written the Treasury secretary suggesting that, “One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of Almighty God in some form on our coins.”

His timing in writing was perfect as officials were confronted with a serious problem of coin hoarding. In response, the alloy of the cent was changed and a 2-cent piece was approved by Congress. The 3-cent piece and the 5-cent piece would change to an alloy of copper-nickel. The new 2-cent piece would claim the honor of being the first U.S. coin to carry the words, “In God We Trust,” but in fact all coins from 1 cent to 5 cents would reflect the serious problems confronting the nation, so they too can be considered to be special issues springing from the crisis.

Not every change sparked by events reflected something bad. The year 1848 saw the discovery of gold in California and when the first shipment arrived in Washington and reached the desk of Secretary of War W.L. Marcy, President Polk decided to use some of that shipment to strike some very special gold $2.50 coins that would be distinguished from others by having the letters “CAL” stamped on the reverse. This would show the gold came from California.

The idea was somewhat political as a war with Mexico, 1846-1848, had not been universally popular, but it did lead to the acquisition of vast territory, including California, and 1,389 gold $2.50 coins produced from California gold proclaimed the riches of the new territory to all Americans and perhaps suggesting to the war’s critics that they had been wrong.

The “CAL” $2.50 gold coins were definitely a group made specially and although the Peace dollar was not specifically made for a crisis, the intent behind the coin was very clear having emerged from a paper delivered by Farran Zerbe at the 1920 American Numismatic Association convention. That paper was followed up by legislation that stated that a silver dollar should be produced, “of an appropriate design commemorative of the termination of the war between the Imperial German Government and the people of the United States.”

If anything, however, it was the prior Pittman Act of 1918, which authorized the melting of up to 350 million silver dollars that reflected the crisis of World War I, not the Peace dollar.

Otherwise, the history of the coins of the United States shows very little indication of special products of crisis. That makes the war nickels all the more unusual. Happily, a set of these is not tough to complete and with so many people alive who remember the war, either as veterans or on the home front, a set of war nickels makes an interesting gift as well.

The one exception to the notion that the war nickel set is easy to complete is the 1943/2-P overdate, although it is not usually included as part of a war nickel set. It lists for $50 in F-12, $300 in MS-60, $775 in MS-65 and $1,000 in MS-65 with full steps. It is more expensive than any regular date, but as a major error it has a certain appeal to error collectors. When seen in this light, the prices do not seem all that high.

The other dates in the war nickel set are much more affordable. In F-12, the prices cluster around the $2 level. Of course, coins in this condition will have that dark and somewhat greenish hue that made the coins stand out when they were in circulation.

War nickel availability today might be a little deceptive. We do not know how many might have been melted when silver was $50 an ounce in 1980. At the time, no one would have seen circulated war nickels as having any special value as they had always been common in circulation. That meant that any price over face value would have seemed like found money.

At $50 an ounce, the silver value of each war nickel would be $2.81 as each contains 0.05626 ounce of the precious metal.

Working to preserve them was the simple fact that the 35 percent silver alloy was such low-grade silver that they cost much more to refine than standard .900 fine silver coins, so they often were dramatically discounted by coin buyers.

The price of the 1943-D today probably reflects its position as the lowest mintage date, which a production of 15,294,000 pieces, while the 1944-S has a mintage of 21,640,000. In MS-65 the 1943-D is $18, while the 1944-S in the same grade is $20.

Prices vary significantly in Mint State grades and these do not always follow mintages closely. The top mintage piece is the 1943-P at 271,165,000. Its MS-65 price is $20. Another variety of the 1943-P is the doubled obverse with a double eye. This is cheaper than the overdate, but at $575 in MS-65 is not cheap. This, too, is not part of the standard 11-coin set, but is something that specialists value highly.

In MS-60, war nickels are cheap. Prices of the 11 pieces in this grade range from $5 for the 1945-S to $10 for the 1944-P and 1944-D.

With such low MS-60 prices, it is tempting to go for a set in MS-65 or higher. Prices range from $18 to $28, with the 1944-P and 1945-P bringing the top price in this grade.

Recent years have been interesting for war nickel collectors. Prices in the MS-65 grade have seen some shuffling. This indicates that demand is now really testing supplies, whereas in the past it was just assumed dates would be available in quantities in proportion to their mintage totals.

For instance, the MS-65 1944-P is $28, but its mintage is 119,150,000. The lowest mintage coin, the 1943-D is priced at $18. Perhaps previous generations saved more 1943-D coins thinking this was the key and in consequence saved fewer of the higher mintage coin thinking it was common.

The 1944-P had a price in 1998 of just $6 in MS-65. But a look at numbers of coins seen by the Professional Coin Grading Service show that the 1944-P was seen 196 times in MS-65. The 1942-P, which used to be more expensive than the 1944-P but now is less at $20, is justified as PCGS has seen 203 of these in MS-65. A similar tale is told by the numbers for the 1942-S. Its price is $19 in MS-65 and PCGS has graded 204.

These differences are not large, but they support the trend in pricing indicating the 1944-P in MS-65 is scarcer than we thought not that many years ago.

Kids in the 1950s would not have known what a full step Jefferson nickel was, but today, those steps on Monticello are examined closely to see whether all six steps are apparent with five full lines flowing uninterrupted from side to side.

Of the wartime dates, the most expensive right now in MS-65 with full steps is the 1945-S at $250, which is ironic as it is the least expensive MS-65.

Some of the better dates in MS-65 with full steps include the 1944-S at $185 while the 1942-S is $170 and the 1945-P is $120. The 1944-P is $75.

While a set in MS-65 with full steps is much more expensive, it is still within the price range of those who truly want to specialize in this aspect of Jefferson nickel collecting.

Realistically, the wartime nickel set is one where you cannot go wrong. It is something you buy to appreciate what the American people were able to accomplish in World War II.

Prices may go up or down or sideways over time, but the set is eternal as are the memories it can evoke.

It is hard to get so much for just a few dollars. That might well explain why some collectors are taking wartime nickels more seriously than they did in the past as it is clearly a special set that reflects a special time in American history.

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On April 15, 2013 Timothy Ramich said
I buy war nickels because I like buying my coins in full rolls.  They seem to be the only coins that sell for around spot.  Everything else is easily 20% or more over spot.  Nobody wants war nickels because of their alloy.  I don't care how they look, which is why I get them for cheap.  I don't care about numismatics, I care about the metal content.

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