After the lukewarm reception that greeted the Shield nickel in 1866, you might think Mint officials would have done everything in their power to get it right in 1883, when the first Liberty Head nickels were released into circulation. Perhaps they did, but the initial version of the coin earned the Mint another black eye, although this time it wasn’t for their new coin’s aesthetics.

Designed by mint engraver Charles E. Barber, the coin’s obverse featured Lady Liberty facing left in profile, with a coronet on her head bearing the word “LIBERTY” and a few sheaves of wheat and cotton bolls tucked behind it. Surrounding Liberty were 13 stars, while the bottom of the coin indicated its year.

So far so good. The coin’s reverse, however, proved a problem. Among other things, it featured an agricultural wreath surrounding a "V," the Roman numeral for five. There was ample precedent for using Roman numerals to designate a coin’s value—for example, three-cent pieces, which were still in circulation at the time, had the Roman numeral “III” on their reverses.

Unfortunately, the coin’s denomination was not explicitly identified by the word “CENTS.” At first this prompted collectors of the day to horde the coins, since many simply assumed that these nickels had to be errors and would one day be valued as such. In fact, this hording assured that plenty of coins would remain in excellent condition, which is one reason why 1883 nickels without the word “CENTS” on them are not especially rare today.

But the coin’s denomination omission also prompted counterfeiters to reed the edges of these new nickels before gold-plating them so they could be passed off as $5 Half Eagles, whose obverses also had Liberty Heads on them. Today these coins are known as “Racketeer” nickels.

More than five-million Liberty Head nickels were minted without the word “CENTS” on them. By the middle of 1883, the Mint had rectified its mistake, and after relocating the phrase “E PLURIBUS UNUM” from the bottom of the coin’s reverse to a strip of blank real estate above the wreath, the word “CENTS” was added.

Liberty Head nickels were minted in plentiful numbers from 1883 until the end of their run in 1912, except in the years 1885 and 1886, when fewer numbers of all minor coinage wer...

Curiously, five 1913 nickels were struck in Philadelphia (one sold at auction in 2001 for $1.84 million) despite direct orders from Mint Director George H. Roberts not to do so. That spurred a race among dealers and collectors to find, possess, and profit from these legendary coins. The search lasted until 1920 and caused many 1903, 1910, and 1912 nickels to be altered by counterfeiters to resemble the five true 1913s.

As for all those Racketeer nickels? Thousands are still around, so these famous fakes can still be acquired, but contemporary collectors should be wary of counterfeit Racketeer nickels (yes, fake fakes) made in the late 20th century out of ordinary, gilded 1883s.

The Liberty Head was discontinued at the end of 1912, when it was replaced in 1913 with the Buffalo or Indian Head nickel.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Liberty Nickel Collector Society

Liberty Nickel Collector Society

Dedicated to liberty nickels, this site features everything from information about grading and identification to ma… [read review or visit site]

Legendary Coins and Currency

Legendary Coins and Currency

This online exhibition from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is a great way to get an overview… [read review or visit site]

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Home to the Society of U.S. Pattern collectors, this well-organized site provides in-depth information on pattern c… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

First Year 1883 Pcgs Ms-64 Liberty Head V-nickel Type Coin Proof-like 5c Graded1883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents V Nickel Pcgs Ms 64 ** Old Green Holder, Super Pq!1900 5c Liberty Nickel Pcgs Ms65 Rare High GradeLiberty Head Nickel 1883-1913 Complete Set 33 Coins 1885 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free ShippingNice Extremely Fine Xf Ef Tougher Date 1895 Liberty Head 5c V Nickel Coin1914 Barber Quarter Pcgs Pr 62 5700.62/18793632 Free Shipping1909 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Very Lustrous Choice Bu++, ** Free Shipping!1912 S United States Liberty V Nickel1912 Liberty V Nickel Pcgs Ms-64 Some Toning1883 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free ShippingBeautiful Two-toned Extremely Fine++ Details 1884 Liberty Head 5c V Nickel CoinNice 1912-s Liberty V Nickel1903 Ngc Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Ngc Ms 63 ** Free Shipping!Group Lot 3 Rolls 120 Coins Liberty V Nickels 5 Cent Different Dates Mint MarksNice 1886 Liberty V Nickel1883 5c With Cents Liberty Nickel 5c Ngc Pr66 Cameo Rare High Grade1886 Liberty V Nickel, Scarce, Key Date, Lower To Middle Grade Details 5c1888 Liberty V NickelBeautiful Toned Extremely Fine Xf Ef 1903 Liberty Head 5c V Nickel Coin1886 Liberty Nickel- Scarce !! Key Date !! #l2341Nice Very Fine Vf Much Tougher Date 1888 Liberty Head 5c V Nickel Coin(250) Mixed Liberty V Nickel Lot // Good - Fine // 1800's+1900's (vl45)1885 5c Liberty Head V Nickel Anacs Fair02 **key Date**1889 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Rainbow Toning ** Free Shipping!1887 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free ShippingLot Of 2 Ngc Sample Slabs Liberty Nickels - Free Ship - Occ2Hjb- 1912 S Liberty Nickel Ngc Good Details, Obverse Scratched1898 Liberty Nickel Pcgs Au581883 No Cents Liberty Nickel Bu Condition 5c Coin Auction Starts At 99 Cents!Rare Very Old Antique Liberty Head V Nickel Us Coin Money Invest Collection Lot1912-s Ngc Liberty Head 5c Coin Vg101886-p Liberty Head V Nickel 5c Nr Free Ship1897 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Gorgeous Superb Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!1883 Liberty Head V Nickel No Cents Ngc Ms 63Nice Extremely Fine Xf Ef Tougher Date 1891 Liberty Head 5c V Nickel Coin* (4) Four 1883 No Cents Liberty V Nickel _ Uncirculated Victory NickelsLot Of 2 Au 1907 Liberty Head V-nickel Type Coins 5c Better Grades Old Us CoinsUncirculated 1883 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1883 With Cents Liberty Nickel, Pcgs Au581885 Liberty Nickel In Almost Good Condition - One Of The Key Dates1886 P Liberty V Nickel Coin - You Grade - 0922121882 Shield Nickel, Very Nice Choice Gem Beauty, ** Free Shipping!5c Nickel 1883 Au/unc No Cents Liberty Head V" Lustrous Pretty Colorful Tone"1884 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1886 Liberty Nickel1912-s Liberty Head V Nickel 5c Nr Free ShipHjb- 1886 Liberty Nickel Ngc Ag Details, Improperly CleanedNice Lot Of (15) Estate Fresh 1883 - 1912 U.s. Liberty Head V-nickels Nr1889 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1885-p Liberty Head V Nickel 5c Nr Free Ship1883 Liberty Head V Nickels Lot Of 3 Coins Excellent Details1912 S Liberty V Nickel Key Date RareLiberty Head V Nickels 17 Dif Dates Coins In Whitman Folder 1883 No Cents 1912-d1883 Nc Xf, 1883 With Cents Fine And 1899 Vf Liberty Nickel1891 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Sharp & Lustrous Gem Bu++, ** Free Shipping!**lot Of 250** Liberty V Nickels Good/+1912 S Liberty V Nickel...key Date...affordable !!Original Fine Much Tougher Date 1883 With Cents Liberty Head 5c V Nickel Coin1883 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping