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    

Cool 1907 Ngc Au58 Struck 10% Off Center Liberty Nickel Mint Error1898 Liberty V Nickel, Pcgs Au-58, Choice & Pleasing (estatesale Is Now Dkrc)1884 Liberty Head 'v' Nickel Uncirculated Details1885 Liberty Nickel, Rare V Nickel, ** Well Sought After! ** Free Shipping!1885 Liberty "v" Nickel Key Date To The Series Us Coin1883 Liberty Head Nickel "no Cents" Ngc Ms65 **great Gem Example**Key Date 1886 Liberty Nickel - Nice Condition!! No Reserve!!1883 5c Pcgs Ms64 (with Cents) Liberty V Nickel - No Reserve!1890 Liberty Nickel Pcgs Ms62 *hucky* 1883 Liberty 5 Cents - No Cents - Outstanding UncirculatedLot Of 6 Coins 1883 Liberty Nickel, 3 Buffalos 1853 Silver 3 Cent, '39 Jefferson1883 Ngc Ms63 No Cents NickelLiberty V Nickels 1883-1912 Full Shotgun Roll Unsearched 40 Coins Full Dates1912-s Liberty V Nickel // Key Date! // (v472)1912-s Liberty Nickel Low Mintage Of 238kFull 41 Coin Roll Liberty "v" Nickels 1883-1913 Only 2nd Series 4 Nickels Scarce1885 Liberty V Nickel Key Date1883 Liberty V Nickel, With Cents, ** Free Shipping!1883 Liberty Head Nickel "no Cents" Anacs Ms63 **great Luster**1908 Liberty "v" Nickel Uncirculated Bu1895 5c Pcgs/cac Proof 64 Liberty V Nickel - No Reserve!1912-s Liberty Nickel Pcgs G04- Starts $69.99! Key Date!1886 Liberty Nickel ** Tough V Nickel ** Free Shipping!1891 Liberty Head 'v' Nickel Ef Details1897 Superb Gem Bu Liberty Nickel Sharp Details Nice Laz1883 Racketeer Liberty Nickel Free ShippingNearly Complete Set Of Liberty Head 'v' Nickels In Whitman Album1886 Liberty "v" Nickel- Set Key Under 3.5 Million Minted! Circulated, Full DateMixed Lot Of 300 Liberty V Nickels1886 Liberty V Nickel Key Date1883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents V Nickel, ** Free Shipping!1899 Liberty Head 'v' Nickel UncirculatedRare Very Old Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Coin Money Investment Lot36-coin Buffalo Nickel Set/collection/lot - 1917 To 1938 - Free S&h1888 Liberty V Nickel // (vf) Very Fine // (v478)1883 Liberty Nickel V (ngc Graded) Without Cents Struck In Frosty Luster Ms 65Key Date 1886 Liberty V Nickel 51886 5c Liberty Nickel. Clear Readable Date Anacs Graded!!!Set Of 128 Mixed Dates And Grades Liberty Head "v" Nickels ~ No Reserve!7 Coins G To F 1883 Wc, 1883 Nc,1884,1887,1888,1889,1896 Liberty Head V NickelsLot Of (10) 1883 Liberty V Nickels, Middle To Higher Grade No Cents Type 5c1894 Liberty V Nickel Coin High Grade Coin & Semi Key Date Weighs 5.2 Grams1886 Liberty Head 5 Cents About Good1883 No Cents Liberty Head 'v' Nickel UncirculatedBag Of 4,000 Liberty V Nickels So Many Better Dates We Guarantee 1883, 84, 87-991886 Liberty Head V Nickel~key Date~1886 Liberty Nickel20 Different 1883-1912 D Partial Set Of Liberty Head V Nickels NicklesRoll (40 Coins) Liberty Head "v" Nickels - Full Dates - No Reserve1883 Liberty V Nickel Free Shipping!1883 No Cents Liberty V Nickel Au * Free Shipping *1885 Liberty Nickel1904 Liberty V Nickel, Proof, ** Free Shipping!1901 Liberty Nickel, Nice V Nickel, ** Free Shipping!1883 Liberty 5 Cents (no Cents) - Josh Tatum Racketeer Nickel -1883 No Cents Liberty Nickel Free Shipping150 Racketeer 00 Nickel Buffalo 36 Oregon New York New Hampshire State Quarter 10 Rolls Of V Liberty Nickels. 400 Total Coin Lot, Full Dates Nice Circulated 1888 Liberty Head Nickel - Ef1912 D Liberty Head V-nickel Without Cents