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    

1885 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Proof, Cameo Look Key Date Proof, Solid Gem Pf++!1883 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Proof-like, Gem Bu Pl, No Cents ** Free Shipping!1883 No Cents & 1883 With Cents Liberty Nickels Nice Condition Coins No ReserveScarce 1912-s Liberty V Nickel Ngc Certified Vg Details * Circulated Us Coin *1885 Bold Full Date Liberty Nickel Decent Looking Coin Mar1885 Liberty Head "v" Nickel- Scarce1886 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Very Scarce Choice Au Key Date, Low Mintage!1905 Liberty V Nickel 5c Pcgs Ms 651886 Liberty Nickel No Reserve 1909 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Proof, Cameo Look, Solid Gem Pf++, ** Free S/h!1912-s Ngc Vf Details Liberty Nickel Key Date1885 Ngc Au Details Liberty Nickel Key Date1886 Liberty Nickel. V.f. 108796Liberty V Nickels - Cull - 500 Assorted Coin Lot Id# Mt1201885 Liberty V Nickel Ngc Good Details Graffiti -1345761897 5c Pcgs Ms 64 1897 Liberty V Nickel400 Liberty V Nickels 1883-1912 Unsorted From Hoard Of 8000 Low Mid High Grade1885 5c Liberty V Nickel Good+ Key Date Low Mintage Rare Find!!!1912-s Liberty Head Nickel, Certified Authentic, Graded Vg-8, Very Rare Key Coin1901 Pcgs Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Proof, Pcgs Pr 65 ** Great Cameo Contrast!1895 Liberty V Nickel Gem Uncirculated Liberty Head Nickel Book With 1886 And 1912 S1901 Liberty V Nickel 5 Cents Brillant Uncirculated Ms64 Pcgs1892 5c Liberty Nickel Ms62 Ngc Graded1884 No Cents Liberty V Nickel Pcgs Xf-40 -1586791883 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, W/ Cents, Lustrous Better Date, ** Free Shipping!1884 5c Liberty V Nickel Au Tough Date Choice Obverse Rare Find!!!1912-s 5c Liberty Head Nickel Five Cent Piece #3591898 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel ** Free Shipping!1912 S Liberty V Nickel! 21891 + 1893 Liberty V Nickels Us Coins --- Nice Details Lot --- #n7781912-s Liberty V Nickel-- No Reserve!!! 1892 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Outstanding Look, Beautiful Superb Gem Bu++!Ngc Graded 1912 S Liberty Head 5 Cents1912-s San Francisco Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1887 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Beautiful Solid Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!1890 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Nice Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!1912 S Liberty Head NickelNear Complete Liberty Nickel Set - 30 Issues - No 1885, 1886, 1912-s, 19131883 To 1912 Liberty Head V-nickels - 42 Coins#1886 5c Liberty V Nickel Good Semi Key Date Low Mintage Rare Find!!!1884 Ngc Au58 Liberty Nickel 5c1883 No Cents Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1912 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Lustrous Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!1866 Shield Nickel, Rays, Very Nice Choice Bu++ Better Date ** Free Shipping!1883 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, W/cents ** Free Shipping!Old Pcgs Rattler / 1883 No Cents Liberty 5 Cent, Pcgs Ms64, Beauty.1886/86 Rpd Liberty Nickel G/ag Details Not Listed In Cherry Pickers Ac2331905 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Very Nice Solid Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!1898 Ngc Pf65 Gem Proof Liberty Nickel1883 Uncirculated Liberty V Nickel 5 Cents - Great Condition - Free Shipping 1883 With Cents Ngc Ms62 Liberty Nickel 5c Lightly Toned1891 Ngc Proof Details Liberty Nickel Color Toned1885 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1912-d Ngc Ms62 Liberty Nickel Purple Blue Pink Toned1887 5c Liberty Head V Nickel - Very FineRoll Of V / Liberty Head Nickels - 40pcs In Lot - See Pics - Circulated 20231889 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel ** Free Shipping!1896 Ngc Pf64 Proof Liberty Nickel Purple & Blue Toning1894 Ngc Pf62 Proof Liberty Nickel