The Civil War had a profound impact on American history – and its effect can be seen on our country’s coinage as well. As precious metals became scarce during the war, the United States Mint was forced to experiment with new materials. Copper, silver and gold all spiked in price and were difficult to source, so the Mint began producing coins with bronze and nickel.
After the relative success of the bronze Two Cent Piece in 1864 and the nickel Three Cent Piece in 1865, the Mint considered striking the Five Cent coin out of nickel as well. This new piece is now known as the Shield Nickel due to its design. Up until that point, the five cent piece was struck in silver and called the Half Dime. It looked virtually identical to the 10c Dime, except it was smaller.
Rather than abandon the Half Dime altogether, the Mint instead released the Shield Nickel concurrently with the Half Dime. The two coins were struck simultaneously from 1866 through 1873. This was one of two situations where the U.S. Mint struck two coins of the same denomination in two different metals concurrently. The other example was the simultaneous production of dollar coins in silver and gold from 1849 through 1889.
As one can assume from its name, this new nickel coin featured an image of a shield on the obverse. In many ways the motif is reminiscent of the Two Cent piece struck from 1864-1873. The obverse design was something of a departure from American numismatic tradition, as most U.S. coins depicted a portrait (usually of Lady Liberty) on the obverse.
It’s believe that the U.S. Mint desperately wanted to phase out the Half Dime, as it was more expensive to strike and was quite small. In an effort to wean the public off the old silver Half Dime, an impressive 15,000,000 five cent Nickels were struck in 1866, the first year of issue. Some speculate that the Mint’s strategy was to flood circulation with the coins so that Americans would quickly grow accustomed to them.
While the Mint was glad that the new nickel coins were cheaper to produce, they were nonetheless a challenge to strike. Coinage dies were prone to cracking when striking nickel, as it’s a much harder metal than gold, silver or copper. In fact, many early five cent Nickels show signs of die deterioration in the form of cracks. It’s not uncommon for five cent Nickels to show incomplete strikes as well.