As is the case with most major historic events, the effects of World War II had an impact on American numismatics. The war generated an immense demand for copper, as it was desperately needed for ammunition. Therefore, the United States Mint was obliged to use a different alloy for the one-cent “penny.” After experimenting with numerous substitutes – including even plastic – the government finally settled on a zinc-coated steel alloy as a replacement material.
The combination of steel and zinc proved to be highly problematic. For one, the grayish-tinted coins were frequently confused for dimes. Since they were light and magnetic, most vending machines failed to properly identify the coins as authentic one-cent pieces. Furthermore, the zinc coating was chemically reactive and would rust quickly once exposed to moisture. After receiving vociferous complaints, the U.S. Mint eventually reverted back to the old copper alloy in 1944.
The switch over to zinc (and the ensuing reversion back to copper) resulted in several fascinating off-metal errors. The U.S. Mint erroneously used some leftover copper planchets (i.e. blanks) in 1943 and some remaining zinc planchets in 1944. These unintentional 1943 copper cents and 1944 zinc-coated steel cents are significant rarities that often fetch between $25,000 and $500,000 at auction. These error coins have received a tremendous amount of mainstream publicity – there is a good bit of confusion as to which 1943/1944 cents are legitimately valuable.
While quite unusual, 1943 steel-coated zinc cents do not actually have much numismatic value. In fact, they are worth just 10-50 cents in average condition and sell for less than $50 in Uncirculated. Many people accidentally confuse the 1943 zinc/steel cents for the wildly rare 1943 copper or 1944 steel pennies. Furthermore, adding to the confusion, quite a few counterfeit 1943 copper / 1944 steel cents have appeared on the market.
By far, the simplest way to differentiate between real and fake versions is to use a magnet. Genuine zinc-coated steel cents are magnetic, while copper-plated fakes are not. There is also a minute weight difference (copper cents weigh 3.11 grams while the zinc version weight just 2.7 grams). If a coin passes the magnet and weight tests, a close review of the coin’s strike and design features will reveal whether it’s authentic or not.
While not terribly valuable, 1943 steel cents do make for great historical mementos of World War II. They are very affordable and make for interesting conversation pieces. Near-perfect specimens, grading MS67-MS68, can be found for $500-$2000 each. 1943 zinc-coated steel cents offer collectors a tremendous amount of backstory and history for a small amount of money.