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 V-nickel Key Date Xf Nice Coin! 1912-s Liberty Head "v" Nickel Key Date In The Series Rare Old Type Coin 5c.Key Date 1885 Liberty "v" Nickelsee Pictures1853 Pcgs Ms62 Cac Arrows Seated Silver Dime 10c No Reserve1917-s Reverse Pcgs Au53 Walking Liberty Silver Half Dollar 50c No Reserve1883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents V Nickel Proof! ** Beautiful Solid Gem Pf!1921-s Lowest Graded! Pcgs Po01 Poor 1 Morgan Silver Dollar $1 No Reserve1885 Liberty Head "v" Nickel The Key Date To The Series Rare Old Type Coin 5c.1899 Prooflike Uncirculated Liberty Nickel! Free Shipping, Never Tax!!1886 Liberty V Nickel 1916-s Pcgs G04 Walking Liberty Silver Half Dollar 50c No Reserve1885 - Liberty Head V Nickel - Icg Ag 3Key Date 1912s Liberty "v" Nickelsee Pictures1913-d Type 2 Pcgs Vf30 Buffalo Nickel 5c No Reserve1886 Liberty Head V Nickel ***key Date*** FillerCirculated Grade 1886 Liberty Nickel1903 Liberty Head V Nickel ☆ Very Ch.au+ ☆ Very Sharp And Lustrous ☆1912 S - Liberty Head V Nickel - Icg G 04 Details1912-d Liberty "v" Nickel Vf+ Circulated1883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents V Nickel Proof, Razor Sharp Gem Pf, ** Free S/h!1883 5c With Cents Liberty NickelHuge Lot Of (100) 1902 U.s. Liberty Nickels 5c Coins **no ReserveRare Very Old Antique Liberty Nickel American Government Us Coin Investment Lot1886 Pcgs G04 Liberty Nickel 5c No Reserve1887 Liberty Nickel, V Nickel ** Free Shipping!Lot Of Liberty Head "v" Nickels (1883-1913)! 261 Grams Worth!Lot Of 400 Us Liberty V Nickels1 Roll (40 Coins) Liberty V Nickel, G+Key Date 1886 Liberty "v" Nickelsee PicturesBarber Nickel Lot - Lot Of 25 Coins Huge Lot Of (100) 1911 U.s. Liberty Nickels 5c Coins **no Reserve1883, No Cents, Liberty Head V Nickel Nickel, About Uncirculated - 7e811912-s - Semi Key - San Francisco Mint, Grade - Vg1882 Ngc Ms64 Morgan Silver Dollar $1 Flashy! No Reserve1886 - Liberty Head V Nickel - Icg Ag 3 Rare Very Old Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Coin Money Investment Lot1885 Liberty Nickel, Highly Desired V Nickel ** Free Shipping!1886 V Nickel Rare Key Date1883 Pcgs Au58 No Cents Liberty Nickel!#bna1899 V Nickel Ultra Rare1886 Liberty Head V Nickel1902 Liberty Nickel, Gorgeous V Nickel, Gem Bu++ ** Free Shipping!6 Piece 1888-1899 Liberty Nickel Lot #118391890 5¢ Liberty Head Nickel Counterstamped C.m.h. & Son Rare Counter Stamp Coin 1906 Liberty Nickel, Lustrous V Nickel! ** Near Gem Bu+++ ** Free Shipping!Rare Very Old Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Coin Money Investment Lot1883 Liberty V Nickel No Cents In Au Condition From Rare, Old Us Coin Lot!!Rare Very Old Antique Liberty Nickel American Collection Us Coin Investment Lot1893 Liberty Head Nickel! No Reserve! Nice Old Coin!1888 Liberty V Nickel (high Grade Bu) Key Date150 Piece Lot Liberty V Nickel United States Coin Mix Date And Condition1897 Liberty Nickel, Super Lustrous Gem Bu++ V Nickel ** Free Shipping!Ugly Coin Contest Entry Key Date 1886 Liberty Nickel Maybe One Of A Kind? Aa39Lot Of (12) Liberty Head Nickels, 1900-p-1908-p, 1910-p-1912-p G/vg Condition1910 Liberty Nickel, Beautiful V Nickel, Choice Bu++, ** Free Shipping!(2) Liberty "v" Nickels 1883(no Cents)/1886 Roll (40 Coins) Liberty Head "v" Nickels - Full Dates - No Reserve1896 Liberty Nickel Xf 45 NgcLot Of 33 Liberty Nickels1890 Liberty Head Nickel 5¢ - Pcgs Au 53 - No Reserve!!