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    

1912 S Liberty V Nickel Fine Tough Key Date!1912-s Liberty Nickel, Desired Key Date V Nickel ** Free Shipping!Rare 1885 Pcgs Genuine Xf Details Cleaning Key Date Liberty Nickel1883 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, With Cents ** First Year Issue! ** Free Shipping!1912-s Liberty Nickel, Key Date San Francisco Issue V Nickel, ** Free Shipping!1885 Liberty Head "v" Nickel Ag1912-s Liberty Head Nickel Vg 8 Ngc! Key Date!!1885 - Liberty Head V Nickel - Icg G 06 Details1912-s Liberty Head Nickel F 15 Ngc1904 Liberty Nickel, Proof V Nickel, Gorgeous Superb Gem Pf++ ** Free Shipping!1897 Liberty Nickel, Proof V Nickel, Impressive Superb Gem Pf++ * Free Shipping!1912 * Pcgs Ms65 * Cac * Liberty Head Nickel * $625+++ Light Golden Gorgeous Gem1912-s Liberty Head Nickel Vg 10 Ngc1904 Pcgs Liberty Nickel, V Nickel, Pcgs Ms 63 ** Free Shipping!1912-s Liberty Head "v" Nickel Vg Details Ngc Read!1886 Liberty V Nickel Ngc Au58 Key Date!! Choice Original Coin! 1907 Liberty Nickel, Proof V Nickel, Great Cameo Proof Appeal, Solid Gem Pf++!1912-s Liberty Head "v" Nickel G 4 Ngc1912-s Liberty Head Nickel G 4 Ngc1912-s Liberty Head Nickel Vg 8 Ngc1886 Liberty Head "v" Nickel G 04 Ngc1902 Ngc Liberty Nickel, Gorgeous V Nickel Ngc Ms 63 ** Super Smooth Surfaces!1908 Liberty Head "v" Nickel Au 58 Ngc1906 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel1912-s Liberty Head "v" Nickel G 6 Ngc1912 S Liberty V Nickel - Nice San Francisco1903 Liberty Nickel, Proof V Nickel, Attractively Toned Solid Gem Pf++Rare Very Old Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Usa Coin Collection Lot500 Liberty Head "v" Nickels.. Most With Full Dates1912-s Liberty Head Nickel G 6 Ngc1885 Liberty Head Nickel Fair 2 Ngc. Key Date!!1886 Liberty Nickel, Tough Key Date V Nickel ** Free Shipping!1912-s Liberty Head Nickel G 4 Ngc1892 Liberty Nickel, Choice Bu++ V Nickel ** Free Shipping!Nice 1883 Liberty V Nickel 5c Icg Ms62 First Year No Cents☆ Free ShippingUs Liberty Nickels 20 Coins (dd869)1883 Liberty Head Nickel Pcgs Ms641889 Liberty Head "v" Nickel Xf 40 Ngc1912-d Liberty Head "v" Nickel Vf 35 Ngc1912-s Liberty Nickel 5¢- Rare Key Date- Good1906 Liberty Head "v" Nickel Xf 45 NgcLiberty Head Nickel Set (3 Short Of Set)1907 Liberty Head "v" Nickel Au Details Ngc Read!1888 Liberty Nickel - Fine Details1886 Liberty Nickel Id# Aa651Rare Very Old Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Coin Money Investment Lot1885 Liberty Nickel - Circulated Condition Rare - 4su1886 - Liberty Head V Nickel - Icg Fr 2Liberty Head Nickel Collection 1883-1912 (25) Coins + 2 Bonus Coins In AlbumLot Of 7 Different Liberty Head V Nickels 1883,1887,1891,1893,1896,1897,1899Rare Very Old Usa Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Coin Collection 60 Lot14 Us V Nickels Liberty Head 1883 - 1912 CoinsLot Of 100 Mixed Date Liberty "v" Nickel Coins (#2858)1883 Liberty "v" Nickel - #79791888 Liberty Nickel - Very Good Details1886 Liberty Head Nickel Ag 3 Ngc1883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents V Nickel1883 5c Liberty V Nickel No Cents Ms+ Coin Awesome DetailsLiberty V-nickels Or Buffalo Nickels, Being Sold In Lots. Over 4000 Total.Circulated 1894 Philadelphia Mint Liberty Nickel Free Shipping