The nickel was born out of the Civil War, when the hoarding of silver coins such as half dimes and quarters was commonplace. This prompted the creation of paper fractional currency, which just about nobody liked. After the war, in 1865, nickel mining interests successfully lobbied to get their metal included in the alloy for a new five-cent coin, which would be composed of 25 percent nickel and 75 percent copper.

Mint engraver James B. Longacre’s first nickel design was rejected because its obverse featured a bust of recently assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, who Mint Director James Pollock deemed too polarizing an image for defeated Southerners. Pollock also disliked Longacre’s George Washington designs, but he eventually settled on a mild variation of Longacre’s recent two-cent piece, which featured a bland shield crowned by the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” and a pair of droopy laurel branches.

When Longacre's nickels were circulated in 1866, they were promptly described as “the ugliest of all known coins.” The reverse was better, especially to contemporary eyes, but like the obverse it was not without controversy. Some said the rays—or bars, as they are also called—between the 13 six-pointed stars on the coin’s reverse were intended as a nod to Confederate soldiers. In fact, the rays were removed midway through 1867, but only because they made the coins difficult to strike.

Shield nickels were minted by the tens of millions, and many decent examples have survived to this day. Because shield nickels were only minted until 1883, they are a fairly easy coin to collect. Of the coins with rays, those from 1866 are most plentiful.

Beware of counterfeit coins dated 1871, 1874, and 1875. These coins circulated widely in the 1870s. No new nickels were minted in 1877 or 1878, although proofs were struck both years. Despite the limited mintages of these proofs (510+ and 2,350 coins respectively), the valuations on these nickels are not especially high since the quality of these coins is uniformly low.

Finally, because this coin was made using a nickel alloy, which is harder than alloys containing silver, completely-struck variations are difficult to come by. Collectors especially value Shield nickels in which all of the vertical lines on the obverse shield are fully-struck and distinct.

Shield nickels were followed in 1883 by Liberty Head nickels, which were struck for circulation until 1912.

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