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  “Quirky Buffaloes, a collection of Buffalo Nickels by date and mintmark” −by Amanda    
How to Grade Circulated Buffalo Nickels  
Buffalo nickels are very tricky little coins to grade, MS especially as the Mint practice of the time was to use the dies as long as possible. But worn pieces are difficult, too, for much of the same reasons. One commonly held notion is that in order to be VF, a coin must have a full horn. This is not true. There are some coins that are certainly MS that don't even have a full horn! I am going to delineate most of the circulated grades and point out why the coins grade as they do.
AU-55 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. AU-55
1913 P Type One with Reverse Lamination
On this coin, you can see wear on the high points of the design, the buffalo's head, shoulder and flank and the Indian's cheek. Still a nice amount of mint lustre. The strike on this is a little soft, as you do not see the usual definition common to Type Ones. Another Type One buffalo! This one has a nifty lamination error on the reverse on the buffalo's mound. A lamination occurs when the alloy for the planchet is impropery mixed and gases within the planchet expand, shearing the metal. This one is small, so there is no premium associated with it. Larger laminations can carry premiums with error coin collectors.
AU-50 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. AU-50
1913 D Type One
On this coin, you can see definite spots of wear on the Buffalo's hide and in the Indian's hair. This coin is better struck than the above coin, but it does not have as much remaining lustre. Another Type One buffalo, exhibiting the typical awesome strike. Later issues did not usually have such exceptional strikes, as the modifications made to the design (thus creating two types) were made to extend die life. This particular example has a neat die crack on the reverse over the words “FIVE CENTS.” There is also a small crack from the rim to the bison's tail.
EF-45 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. EF-45
1923 P
On this coin, you can see considerable (as opposed to in AU condition) flatness of the bison's rear flank and head. The Indian's hair above the braid shows wear, almost indistinct from the cheek area. I am not sure how original the surfaces are, but the coin shows EF detail. This was my first buffalo nickel. There is a small EPU clash under the Indian's chin, sometimes referred to as “chin whiskers.”
VF-35 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. VF-35
1937 P
On this coin again, you can see the hair above the braid is nearly merged with the cheek bone. The tip of the bison's horn is missing and the flank and hide show wear.
VF-30 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. VF-30
1919 P
The bison's horn is a little less distinct than the above coin, and the surface has a more circulated look. The Indian's brow shows wear. This Buffalo exhibits a reverse die crack in the word “FIVE.” Die cracks happened when the dies were overused. Nickel is a very hard coining metal, and the dies were under quite a bit of stress.
VF-25 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. VF-25
1934 P
The horn is still quite clear, as this issue is well-struck. More wear shows than on the previous coin, as the bison's body shows considerable flatness and the Indian's hairline at the forehead is quite indistinct.
VF-20 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. VF-20
1913 P Type Two
The horn on this coin is very poor indeed, but this issue typically comes weakly struck. Compare the other details of the coin with the previous, the cheek area and the bison's hindquarters. One must consider all the details of a coin, not just the bison's horn. Look at “LIBERTY” and the rim in the area, this will be a major talking point in the lower grades, as often the horn is of no use at all. See how “LIBERTY” is still quite clear and the rims are strong. The Type Two nickels were modified so that “FIVE CENTS” would be a lower relief and would thus wear away more slowly. It was suggested to modify the date area as well, but this never happened, and so today there are many dateless buffaloes. In addition to protecting the denomination, the buffalo was moved from a hill to a plane and the fields were smoothed out. This particular buffalo exhibits interesting clash marks, most notably a transfer of the “E Pluribus Unum” motto from the reverse. Type Two buffaloes are almost always weakly struck.
F-15 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. F-15
1938 D/S
The top of the bison's head is worn quite smooth and the rim near “LIBERTY” is less distinct. The feathers are merging with the Indian's hair near the top of his head. This buffalo has something very cool going on, what is known as a repunched mint mark, or RPM. In 1938, the buffalo nickel was on its way out and the Jefferson nickel was taking the stage. Buffaloes were only produced in Denver this year, but some dies were punched with an S mark at the parent mint in Philadelphia. This created several RPMs (or OMMs, over mint marks) for this date. None are very rare, but some of the more dramatic examples do have a premium associated with them. This date was hoarded by many people because it was the last of the buffaloes. This specimen is OMM-2.
F-12 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. F-12
1918 P
The feathers are very worn near the top of the Indian's head and “LIBERTY” is worn right to the rim. The bison's head is very flat.
VG-10 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. VG-10
1920 P
Notice how the rim is wearing into “LIBERTY” on the obverse and “United” on the reverse.
G-6 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. G-6
1924 D
The details are very weak, but that is inherent to the strike. Look at the rims, you can see they are merging with the letters more so than on the previous coin, but not as much as on the next coin. The 1924-D buffalo is a bit of a semi-key date, as they only made about 5.2 million of them. The Denver Mint hadn't made any nickels since 1920. This issue suffers from striking problems, so I grade it G-6 even though the date is weak. This coin is also a Masked Indian variety, a discovery piece, although the pictures do not show it very well. A Masked Indian variety is a die clash formed around the Indian's eye by the buffalo's back legs.
G-4 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. G-4
1920 D
The rims show considerable merging with “LIBERTY” and with “United States of America.”
AG-3 Click to view an enlargement of this photograph. AG-3
1923 S
Partial date and heavy merging of the rims with the letters.
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Webpage last updated:   Saturday, October 28, 2006