Buffalo Nickel Design

Making the Grade – Scouting Buffalos an adventure

Distinguishing between weak strike and wear is tricky by Beth Deisher 1990’s Coin Values Magazine

Hunting “Buffalos” is an adventure when you’re in coin country.
As you scout the territory, you quickly learn that strike plays an important role in the value and desirability of many dates and Mint marks of Indian Head 5-cent coins issued from 1913 to 1938.
It’s important to understand the terrain. All Indian Head 5-cent coins, commonly referred to as “Buffalo nickels” (due to the popularity of the reverse design), are made of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel. This particular nickel alloy, while durable, is a hard metal and presents striking problems – especially when an extra-high relief design is employed.
James Earle Fraser’s Indian Head on the obverse and bison on the reverse are among the highest relief designs ever used on a low-denomination U.S. circulating coin.

While the powerful design elements are stunning and the coin is a collector favorite, when grading one must be aware of what constitutes a “normal” strike for the date and Mint mark.
Specialist David Lange, in the second edition of his book The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels, notes: “The Buffalo nickel series is one of the more challenging ones to grade, due to a great variation in the
quality of strike. High-grade coins of the Denver and San Francisco Mints may often seem to be well worn, yet the presence of Mint luster dispels this illusion. This phenomenon is particularly evident on Branch Mint coins dated 1917 to 1926.”
The basics of grading Indian Head 5-cent coins are the same as other denominations of U.S. coins.
Grade equates to level of preservation. A coin’s grade is a major factor in determining its value. The other major factor in valuing a coin is rarity, or the number available to collect.
Buffalo nickels, like other U.S. coins, are graded on a scale of 1 to 70, where 1 represents the worst state of existence and 70 represents perfection, the absolute best state of existence.
The first 59 numbers are reserved for coins that have circulated -those that have received wear as a result of having been passed from hand to hand or used in commerce. Consequently their state of being -preservation -varies widely. umbers and adjectives are used to identify commonly accepted benchmarks describing their state of preservation and to convey information used in determining value.

Eleven numbers -60 through 70 – are used to describe coins that have not circulated. Collectors often refer to them as Uncirculated. In grading terms, they are known as Mint State, which is used to describe coins that are in a state of preservation essentially the same as they were when they left the Mint. If a coin has not circulated, it cannot exhibit evidence of wear. However, a Mint State coin can have imperfections and it can be weakly struck and lack details.
The mastery of grading, especially the Mint State range, requires an understanding of and knowledge about what the perfect coin would be in each design and denomination and being able to discern the 10 increments that separate perfection (70)from the lowest grade of Mint State (60).
There are four basic considerations for grading Buffalo nickels: surface preservation, strike, luster and eye appeal.

Surface preservation is the single most important factor and is generally considered at least twice as important as the other three factors. Surface preservation refers to the condition of the surfaces on both sides of the coin. The Indian Head portrait, facing right, dominates the obverse. Since the portrait occupies most of the coin’s canvas, there is a very small field on the right side of the obverse. A left facing, full-figure male bison dominates the reverse, again leaving very little space in the field of the coin. Contact marks, evidence of where the coin has collided with other coins or objects, are most often found on the large design devices, the Indian’s face on the obverse and the bison’s body on the reverse. In analyzing the must weigh the visual impact of any imperfections and weigh the degree of severity and whether the locations of the imperfections seriously detract from the coin’s overall appearance.

Contact marks are permitted in the Uncirculated grades, but their number and location help to determine where the grade will ultimately land on the Mint State scale. The more contact marks, the lower the grade, especially if they detract from the overalI eye appeal.
James L. Halperin uses color ­coded “coin maps” in How to Grade U.S. Coins (www.coingrading.com} to convey critical areas and severity. state of the surfaces of a Buffalo nickel, one In the illustrated color-coded Buffalo nickel map RED is considered Worst (Average x 4), ORANGE is Bad (Average x 2), YELLOW is Average, GREEN is Better (Average x 1/2) and BLUE is Best (Average x 1 /4).
Halperin points out that his quantifications are approximate and explains that a mark in the red area is about eight times more serious than if the same mark were in the green area. The worst places on the obverse for a mark or scratch are on the Indian’s face, which is the focal point of the coin, and the date area. On the reverse, the bison’s head and body area are the worst places for scratches and marks. One of the most important grading decisions is determining whether there is evidence of wear on the coin’s surface. That means you must be able to distinguish between a Mint State coin and a top grade About Uncirculated coin. Critical to determining whether a coin is Uncirculated is inspecting the surfaces to find evidence of wear.
Graders look first at the high points of the design, where the wear from circulation is most likely to appear.
The highest point on the obverse is on the Indian’s cheekbone, thus the first evidence of wear can be detected by carefully inspecting that area of the Indian’s face. Also, the date is too close to the highest surface, so it is quick to reveal wear.
The highest points on the reverse are the bison’s hipbone-flank area and the left shoulder. (These high points are highlighted in red in the accompanying illustration.)

The design high points should be the first areas of the coin inspected. Tilt and rotate the coin, looking for a contrast of luster between the high points and the rest of the coin. Abrasions on the high points drop the grade to circulated.
Strike refers to the sharpness and completeness of detail imparted by the dies when the planchet (blank disk) becomes a coin. A fully struck Buffalo nickel exhibits all of the elements of the designs on both sides of the coin to the smallest detail.
Strike plays an interesting role in grading Buffalo nickels. They were often weakly struck and lack design details, even on Uncirculated examples. Because of the prevalence of weak strikes in these years, it is helpful to keep the following years and Mint marks in mind: 1913-5 (both design types), 1917-D and -5, 1918-D and -5, 1919-D and S, 1920-D and -5, 1921-5, 1923-5, 1924-D and -S, 1925-D and -5, 1926-D and 5-, 1927-D and -5, 1928-D and -5, 1929-D, 1931-5, 1934-D, 1935-D and the 1937-D Three-Legged Bison variety. One of the greatest grading challenges is learning to distinguish between the symptoms of weak striking and legitimate wear.
Specialist Lange explains: “The matter of how to grade and price weakly struck coins remains an ongoing concern. In practice, coins that meet most of the criteria for the assignment of a particular grade will usually receive that grade and may be valued in accordance with current price guides. This is particularly true of dates that are highly in demand but are often found inadequately struck. Well-struck specimens of the same dates will usually command a premium.”

Luster is created on the coin’s surface from the microscopic flow lines as the metal flows to fill the die in the striking process. The brilliance of the luster on the surface is created by the way the metal reflects light.

Eye appeal is the aesthetic appeal of the coin, which is the most subjective factor. Overall attractiveness forces the grader to take all of the coin’s qualities into consideration and rank and balance them.
One very important facet of grading Buffalo nickels, especially for circulated specimens, is the emphasis placed on the visibility of the bison’s horn. The amount of horn visible in grades Very Good through Very Fine is the primary factor in determining the coin’s value. Collectors should be aware that there are variances, especially in the grade Fine 12.
The American Numismatic Association’s Official ANA Grading Standards for United States Coins specifies that three-fourths of the horn must be present in order to attain the F-12 grade. Many knowledgeable dealers and collectors accept two­thirds of the horn visible as meeting the requirement for the F-12 grade.

The Official Guide Book of United States Coins (Red Book) specifies half of the horn must be present for the Very Good 8 grade, and that in order to attain a Very Fine 20 grade the full horn must show. Throughout the years the Buffalo nickel was struck, the 5-cent coin was the most widely used and circulated denomination in commerce. With the introduction of the coin board in the mid-1930s, many people began collecting Buffalo nickels from pocket change, saving the coins by date and Mint mark. Thus many Buffalo nickels have survived in circulated grades. The series is avidly collected today in a wide range of grades.

In order to provide wide range of circulated and Mint State grades for Indian Head/Buffalo 5-cent coins, Coin World’s Coin Values borrowed circulated and Mint State specimens for use in illustrating this article from Buffalo nickel specialist Norm Talbert of The Great Lakes Company, Cleveland. ANACS senior grader and authenticator Michael Fahey graded the coins and provided grade descriptions. ANACS is a third-party professional coin grading service located in Dublin, Ohio, that is owned and operated by Coin World’s Coin Values’ parent company, Amos Press Inc.•

ANACS senior grader and authenticator Michael Fahey graded the coins and provided grade descriptions.


Obverse and reverse designs barely discernible. Legends and numerals nearly worn away. 


Design elements and legends heavy worn, but faintly visible in spots. 

Obverse: Very little detail remaining in central part of design. LIBERTY is weak and merged with the rim. 

Reverse: Bison is almost flat but well outlined. Horn does not show. Legend is weak but readable and rim is worn to top of letters. 


Heavy wear on design elements and legends, but visible in spots. 

Obverse: Some detail discernible in central part of design, especially on Indian’s hair. Date is readable. LIBERTY is present but fades to the rim. 

Reverse: Some detail barely visible on head and front legs of bison. Horn is not distinguishable. Legends fain but readable. 


Overall worn well, but design is clear. 

Obverse: Indian’s hair definable at temple and near cheekbone. Date is clear. LIBERTY merges with rim. 

Reverse: Some detail present on bison’s head. Legends are clear and horn is partially visible, but worn flat. 


Worn but deciding is distinguishable. 

Obverse: More of Indian’s hair definable at temple and near cheekbone. Detail beginning to emerge on hair braid. Stronger details in LIBERTY legend. 

Reverse: Detail’s of bison’s beard beginning to emerge and detail on tail discernible. Horn is barely detectable. 


Entire design is clear, although evenly worn. 

Obverse: Three-quarters of details shoe in hair and braid. LIBERTY is strong. 

Reverse: Major details of hair on bison’s back are visible. Horn and tail are smooth but are three-quarters visible.  


Designs are clear and bold, although worn. 

Obverse: Details visible in hairline of forehead and temple area and on hair braid. LIBERTY is bold.

Reverse: Major details on hair on bison’s back and front legs are distinctive. About 85 percent of smooth horn and tail present. 


Moderate, even wear on design elements. 

Obverse: considerable flatness on hair and cheek, but all details are clear. Feathers exhibit partial detail. 

Reverse: Hair on bison’s head worn. Full horn and tail are visible. 


Light, even wear on design elements.

Obverse: Nearly full detail visible in Indian’s hair. Braid and feathers are sharp but worn. 

Reverse: Bison’s head, front legs, and hip are worn. Horn is worn but full. Tail shows. 


Light wear on the high points of the design devices. 

Obverse: Some light wear on hair and face, which are bold and well defined. Slight wear visible on lines of the hair braid. 

Reverse: Horn and end of tail are worn but all detail are present. 


Very light wear on the highest points of the design elements. 

Obverse: Slight wear detectable on the hair above the braid and there is a trace of wear noticeable on the Indian’s temple and har near his cheekbone. 

Reverse: Light wear noticeable on the high points of the hip and thigh. Bison’s horn and tip of the tail are sharp and nearly complete. 


Traces of mint luster still show. 

Obverse: Traces of wear evident on hair. Wear also detectable on the left side of forehead and on the cheekbone. 

Reverse: Wear detectable on the tail and hip. Also, wear evident on the hair above and around the horn. 


Half of mint luster still present. Slight traces of wear visible on the hight points.

Obverse: Only trace of wear detectable on hight point of cheek. 

Reverse: Trace of wear shows on the hip. 


Slightest traces of wear detectable on the highest points of the design elements. 

Obverse: Has some signs of abrasion on high points of Indian’s cheek. 

Reverse: May have slight abrasion on hipbone and flank area. 


No traces of wear evident on high points of designs. May have blemishes and heave contact marks in all areas. May lack full Mint luster and surfaces may be dull or spotted. May have poor eye appeal. 


No trace of wear detectable. May have few distracting contact marks in prime focal areas. May lack full Mint luster. Generally unattractive eye appeal. 


Strictly Uncirculated, no wear. May have some distracting contact marks in prime focal areas. May lack full Mint luster. Eye appeal is generally acceptable. 


No wear, strictly Uncirculated. May have minor distracting contact marks or minor blemishes. Luster may be original or slightly impaired. Attractive and appealing to the eye. 


Uncirculated, no wear. May have light, scattered contact marks – a few being in prime focal areas. Mint luster is average, original. Overall appearance is pleasing to the eye. 


Uncirculated, no traces of wear. May have light nicks or scattered contact marks in prime focal areas. Must have full and original Mint luster. May be unevenly toned or lightly finger -marked. Overall, very pleasing to the eye. 

2 thoughts on “Making the Grade – Scouting Buffalos an adventure”

  1. I’m in the San Francisco area and looking to grade a Buffalo nickel. Looking at charts I know enough it’s a minimum of Ms-65 . But I would only be guessing, but have never seen , just happen to come across one . Wondering best place I can walk in and get graded. Any answers would be appreciated as best example personally seen and do not want to mail. PCGS is preference but any top grader would do . Just want accurate grade.

    1. You can look at the “more images” section of coin facts to get a better idea of the grade scale at PCGS.
      NGC and Heritage also have lots of pictures to compare with your coin.
      If you want it graded by one of the certification houses, you’ll either have to have a dealer send it in, you send it in, or look for a coin show near you to have them send it in. To get it certified but one of the top grading houses (PCGS, NGC, ANACS, IGC, CAC) the coin most likely will have to be mailed. Having a dealer take care of this might be a better route for you.

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