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    

1902 Pcgs Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Pcgs Ms 65 ** Free Shipping!Choice To Gem Mint State Uncirculated 1883 Nc Liberty 5c V Nickel Nickle Coin1885 Liberty Head Nickel (higher Grade)1900 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel Pcgs Ms 65 ** Lustrous Beauty, Fresh New Look!1903 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Very Lustrous Solid Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!National Coin Album Nickel Set Key Lot Shield, Liberty Head, Buffalo Collection1912-s 5c Liberty Nickel Five Cent Good Circulated Coin A06831912-s San Francisco Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1906 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel ** Free Shipping!1912 S Liberty V Nickel Extremely Rare Key Date Only 238k Ever Minted!*hhc* Liberty Head V Nickel Collection, Nearly Complete Set, 30/33 Coins!1886 Liberty Head Nickel 1912-s Liberty V Nickel Full Liberty * Circulated Us Coin *1885 5c Liberty Nickel Five Cent Ag About Good Details Scratched Coin A06811912-s 5c Liberty Head V Nickel /c71912-s Liberty Head Nickel30 Coins) Every Date Set Except 1885,86,12s (1883-1912 D) Liberty 5c V NickelsChoice To Gem Mint State Uncirculated 1883 Nc Liberty 5c V Nickel Nickle Coin1911 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Cameo Proof, Gorgeous Superb Gem Pf++ Cam!Key Date 1886 Liberty Nickel Icg Vf1912-s Huge Key Date Vg Liberty Head Nickel 1892 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Great Color, Gem Bu++/solid ** Free Shipping!1903 5c Liberty Nickel Five Cent Uncirculated Unc Coin A06821887 Liberty Nickel Icg Au 501895 Liberty Nickel Icg Au 5524 All G/vg Set 1889,90,91,92,93,94,95,96,97,98,99,1900-12d Liberty 5c V NickelsΩ 1886 Liberty Nickel G1904 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Super Lustrous Solid Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!1885 Liberty V Nickel High Grade Full Bold Liberty Very Rare Key Date 1912 S Liberty Nickel Icg Vg 101897 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Cameo Proof, Gorgeous Superb Gem Pf++ Cam Pr!Lot Of Five 1883 5c Liberty Head 'v' Nickels15 Low Grade Type Coins Large Cents,half Dimes,seated Dime,2 Cent,shield,v-nikel1883 Liberty V Nickel Pcgs Ms64 No Cents Nice Eye Appeal Fantastic LusterLiberty Head Nickel (1883-1912) *complete Set(minus 1885-1886)* G-vg See PicsLiberty V Nickel LotNear Complete Liberty Nickel Set - 30 Issues - No 1885, 1886, 1912-s1912 S Ngc Fine Details Liberty Head Nickel 75% Copper Ar351907 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel ** Free Shipping!1912 Libeerty Head Nickel 99 Cent Start No Reserve24 Liberty V Nickels 1883, 1887, 1888, 1889, 1891, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1898, 1899Roll Of 40 V-nickels GoodGenuine 34 Coin Complete Liberty Head "v" Nickel Set Good+ Vg+ Details In Album1912s Pcgs Vg-10 Liberty Head NickelNeed A Hole Filler? - 1886 Key Date Liberty "v" Nickel...with Low Combined Ship1906 5c Ngc Au 53 1906 Liberty V Nickel1886 Key Date Liberty Nickel 1907 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel ** Free Shipping!Roll Of Liberty Nickels Circulated Condition 1886 Liberty Nickel- Scarce !! Very Good+ !! Key Date !! #h3101Genuine Key Date 1885 Liberty Head V 5c With Ag-good Details1883 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, No Cents, Very Pl, Obv Die Crack, Solid Gem Bu++!Nice Liberty V-nickel Collection Including The 18861883 5c With Cents Liberty Nickel1911 5c Ngc Au Details 1911 Liberty V Nickel1906 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Sharp Blazer ** Free Shipping!1912-d Liberty Nickel- Very Fine !! Semi Key !! Better Date !! #q2942The Forty Niners,v-nickel,framed 9 Coins1903,1911,1910,1912,1909,1911w/cents19061883 5c With Cents Liberty NickelLot Of 29 Average Circulated Liberty Head "v" Nickels