The Buffalo Nickel, or Indian Head Nickel, was introduced in 1913 and struck continuously until 1938. The series has been a long time favorite for coin collectors due to the uniquely American images which appear on both the obverse and reverse of the coins. A set of circulated pieces can be completed with some difficulty in lower grades. A full mint-state set is a major accomplishment and a milestone for advanced collectors. Interesting varieties such as the 1937-D Three Legged Buffalo Nickel add another aspect to collecting the series.
The Buffalo Nickel was the successor of the Liberty Nickel, which had been minted for circulation from 1883 to 1912. The new nickel was designed by James Earle Fraser, who initially produced a number of pattern pieces at his studio. One of these is now a famous pattern with the head of Abraham Lincoln on the obverse and a blank reverse. These are not products of the US Mint, but private patterns, correctly listed in Appendix C of the Judd book (United States Pattern Coins).
The design that was chosen as the new five cent denomination shows a Native American male on the obverse. Fraser modeled the head of the Indian after three chiefs (Iron Tail of the Sioux, Two Moons of the Cheyenne, and John Big Tree of the Seneca nation) who had posed for him years earlier. In front of the face is the word LIBERTY, and the date is on the truncation of the neck. Beneath the date is a small incused “F”, the designer’s initial. The placement of the date caused it to wear heavily in circulation, creating many “dateless” Buffalo Nickels.
The reverse of the Buffalo Nickel was made in two distinct types. The first was produced for only a short time during the first year of issue in 1913, at all three Mints in use at the time. A male North American Bison, commonly called a buffalo, is standing on a raised mound. Although the Bison that Fraser used as model was never positively identified, legend has survived that it is Black Diamond from the New York Central Park Zoo. Beneath the mound is the denomination expressed as FIVE CENTS with the mint mark below. Above the Bison is the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA with the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM slightly below.
Soon after the first Buffalo Nickels were struck, it became apparent that the reverse design would wear quickly in circulation, particularly the area carrying the inscription of the denomination which was on the highest point of the coin. The design was slightly modified by Charles E. Barber, who had previously expressed strong criticism of the design. The overall relief of the coin was lowered, the ground beneath the bison was made flat, and the denomination was placed within a recessed area. This type, which was introduced part of the way through 1913, was used without further modifications until the end of the series.