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    

Rare Key Date!! 1885 Liberty Head V Nickel Nickle. The 86 & 12s Also Listed Nr!1912-d Liberty Head 5 Cents Outstanding UncirculatedRare Date!! G/ag 1886 Liberty Head V Nickel Nickle. The 85 & 12s Also Listed Nr!1886 Liberty Head Nickel Five Cent Coin G Nik14991900 Liberty Nickel. Ngc Pf 63.1890 Liberty Head 'v' Barber Five Cents 5c Nickel/copper Coin Pcgs Pr63 Proof NrRare Key Date! ~ Original Good 1885 Liberty Head "v" Nickel 5 Cents ~ Must See1886 Liberty V Nickel Key DateHigh About Good Key Date 1885 Liberty Head "v" Nickel 5 Cents ~ No Reserve!Fantastic 1893 Liberty Nickel1896 Pcgs Liberty Nickel Proof Pcgs Pr 64 ** Popular Old Green Pcgs Holder! ** F1883 Liberty Head Nickel With Cents 5c - Pcgs Ms63 - Certified & Graded1885 Liberty V Nickel Pcgs Good DetailsVery Good Better Date 1912-s Liberty Head "v" Nickel 5 Cents ~ Damaged ~ Nr!1885 Liberty Nickel Graded G 4 By Ngc! Low Mintage Of Just 1,472,700! Key Date!1885-p U.s. Liberty Nickel Coin ++ngc Slabbed Good Details++ Rare1912-s Vf 20 Anacs Usa Liberty Head V NickelAlmost Complete 1883-1912-d Liberty Head "v" Nickel Collection ~ 3 Missing! C51885 Liberty Nickel, Good+ Details, Light Obverse Scratch, Key Date!1886-p U.s. Liberty Nickel Coin ++ngc Slabbed Fine Details++ 1885 5c Liberty Nickel, V Nickel Key Date1912 S V Nickel Fine1907 Liberty Nickel, Nice V Nickel, ** Free Shipping!Liberty V-nickels 1885, 1892, 1893s, 2-1895, 1897, 1898 Circulated; Tvn11886 Liberty Nickel Vf-xf Detail1883 Liberty Head 5 Cents - No Cents - Nice Uncirculated1883 Pcgs Au58 No Cents Liberty V Nickel !!! Gorgeous Coin !!!Nice 1900 Liberty "v" Nickel1912-s Liberty NickelLiberty 'v' Nickel Roll, 1883-1913, All Coins Have DatesAbout Good Key Date 1886 Liberty Head "v" Nickel 5 Cents ~ Dark Color ~ Nr!1912-s Liberty Nickel 5Lot 54 United States Liberty V 5 Cent Coin Nickels 1896 - 1912 Including 1912d1901 Liberty V Nickel Unc?1883 Liberty 5 Cents (no Cents) - Josh Tatum Racketeer Nickel -Rare Very Old Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Coin Money Investment LotRare Very Old Antique Liberty Head American Us Collection Investment Coin LotKey Date! High Good 1885 Liberty Head "v" Nickel ~ No Reserve! ~ Free Shipping!50 Very Good And Better Liberty (or "v") Nickels - Nice Group - Lots Of Pics !Super Rare 1883 Ragged End Clip Nickel With Blakesly Effect Bu Mint Error CoinRare Very Old Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Coin Money Investment Lot1905 Liberty Nickel, Nice Coin ** Free Shipping!1901 Uncirculated Liberty V NickelTwo 1883 Liberty Head "v" Nickel Coins - With Cents And No Cents - No Reserve1883 Liberty 5 Cents - Racketeer Nickel - Original Reeded Edge - Rare!!1887 Liberty Nickel, Beautiful Proof ** Free Shipping!A Roll Of Liberty V Nickels, Good - Fine, Nice Over All Coin !!Lot Of (40) U.s. Liberty V Nickel Coins (1 To 4) Of Each Date 1899-1912 -#0826281881, 1893 & 1904 Indian Cents - 1897, 1906 & 1911 Liberty 5 Cents Xf+ To Au1883 Liberty V Nickel No Cents (ngc Graded) Stunning In Frosty Mint Luster Ms 65Large Lot Of U.s. Nickels - Over (45) Different With Five Silver! Please ViewLiberty V Nickles.1 Roll All 40 Mix Coins F.s&h Almost Complete 1883-1912-d Liberty Head "v" Nickel Collection ~ Only 3 Missing!1883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents V Nickel, ** Free Shipping!Roll (40 Coins) Liberty Head "v" Nickels - Full Dates - No Reserve1898 Xf Liberty "v" Nickel Id# Pp4101883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents, ** Free Shipping!1889 Liberty Nickel Better Date! 14 Day Satisfaction Guarantee1884 To 1910 Liberty Nickel Lot / 27 Coins - See Description For Dates1901 Liberty Nickel, Proof V Nickel, * All-around Pleasing Coin! * Free Shipping