Grading Buffalo nickels is a skill that has taken even the most experienced coin collectors many years of practice to perfect. This guide will get you started in acquiring those skills so that you can accurately grade Indian Head nickels.
Remember that coin grading is the expression of an opinion that describes the condition of an individual coin that most dealers and collectors would agree with. Grading Buffalo nickels is not an exact science where a formula can be applied and everyone comes out... with the same result. Over time, numismatists and coin grading services have agreed upon certain definitions, descriptions and Sheldon's numeric values that assist all coin collectors in describing their coins accurately (to a certain extent). This guide will help you understand those terms and descriptions so you can accurately grade your Indian Head nickels.
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Understanding Grades for Buffalo Nickels
Buffalo nickels are relatively small but are made out of 75% copper and 25% nickel. Nickel is a tough metal that is hard and does not easily produce a nicely struck coin. Therefore, the highest points of the coin are usually flat and lacking detail due to an incomplete strike. Grades of mint state or uncirculated also take into account the fact that the coin may not be fully struck. Coins produced in the Denver and San Francisco mints from about 1917 to about 1928 are usually lacking in detail because they were not fully struck at the mint.
The photo illustrates the highest points on the Buffalo nickel design (indicated by the color red).
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About Good-3 (AG3 or AG-3)
Summary: The coin is very heavily worn and barely legible. Some of the devices, lettering, legends and dates may be worn smooth, but the date is still readable. Portions of the rim blend into the lettering.
Obverse: The Indian's head is completely lacking detail and only an outline exists. The date is barely readable yet distinguishable. The rim of the coin is merging with the letters of "LIBERTY".
Reverse: The Buffalo is completely lacking in detail. The head, shoulders, and rear flank are flat and provide only an outline of the design. The letters closest to the rim are merged with the rim in most areas.
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Good-4 (G4 or G-4)
Summary: The coin is heavily worn overall. The devices, lettering, legends, and date are readable but may have some faintness in a few areas. All major features are visible in at least outline form and the rim is mostly complete but may be partially worn off in a few spots.
Obverse: The fundamental details of the Indian's head (feathers and hair) are starting to appear. The date is clearly readable without any strenuous effort. On poorly struck examples, the letters of "LIBERTY" may be merged with the rim.
Reverse: The buffalo is well worn but the major details (head, shoulder and rear flank) are visible. The top of the buffalo's head is flat and devoid of all details. The legends are clear, but may be touching the rim in a few spots.
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Very Good-8 (VG8 or VG-8)
Summary: The coin is well-worn. The design is clear and major elements are defined but are flat and lacking in detail.
Obverse: The details in the Indian's hair are beginning to show. The hair near the cheek and forehead is flat and lacking any detail.
Reverse: The buffalo's head is mostly flat but the lower part of the horn is starting to show. The legends are clear and distinct. Some detail on the very top of the buffalo are visible.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
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Fine-12 (F12 or F-12)
Summary: The coin shows moderate even wear over the entire surface of the coin. The major design elements are bold and all lettering, legends, and date are clear and readable.
Obverse: Entire design is clear but flat in spots. Three-quarters of the details in the Indian's hair and braid are visible. The hairline near the cheek and forehead is discernible.
Reverse: Major details in the buffalo's shoulder and rear flank are becoming visible. The horn is starting to show and the tuft of hair on the top of the head is more distinct. All lettering is bold and clear.
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Very Fine-20 (VF20 or VF-20)
Summary: Moderate to minor wear exists only on the highest parts of the design where a slight flatness is beginning to show. Although worn, the overall condition of the coin is pleasing and attractive.
Obverse: The Indian's hair and cheek are noticeably flat but not lacking in detail. Partial details in both feathers are showing.
Reverse: The hair on the buffalo's head is worn and the horn may be incomplete. The hair on the top of the Buffalo's shoulder has some detail.
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Extra Fine-40 (EF40, XF40 EF-40 or XF-40)
Summary: Has only the slightest wear on the very highest points of the coin. All details are sharp and all design elements are well defined. Some traces of mint luster may still exist.
Obverse: The Indian's hair, braid, and feathers are lightly worn but the overall design details are bold. Minimal wear is visible on the ribbon lines in the hair braid.
Reverse: The buffalo's horn is virtually complete and the details in the buffalo's hair are bold. Only minor flatness exists on the buffalo's shoulder and rare flank.
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About Uncirculated-55 (AU55 or AU-55)
Summary: Very minor traces of wear or abrasions are visible on only the highest points on the coin. Mint luster is almost complete and the surfaces of the coin are well preserved.
Obverse: Only slight traces of wear are evident on the Indians cheek and top of the braid. At least half of the original mint luster remains.
Reverse: Minor traces of wear are visible on the buffalo's shoulder and rare flank. All other design elements are bold.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Mint State-63 (MS63 or MS-63)
Summary: No traces of wear from circulation exist. Mint luster is complete but shows minor impairments. Many contact marks, bag marks, and hairline scratches exist on the coin's field and major design elements and are visible without magnification. Overall, the coin has an attractive eye appeal.
Obverse: There are no obvious signs of wear on the Indian's cheek. Mint luster must be full and complete but may be impaired.
Reverse: The buffalo's shoulder and rare flank show no signs of wear but may be lacking in detail due to a less than full strike. Mint luster is complete and unbroken.
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Mint State-65 (MS65 or MS-65)
Summary: A high quality of mint luster completely covers the surfaces of the coin and is undisturbed. Contact marks and bag marks are few and small. The coin is well struck and a few hairlines may be seen under a magnifying glass. Overall the coin is brilliant and has an above average eye appeal.
Obverse: Mint luster is complete and unimpaired. The strike is full and complete and even minor details exist on the highest points.
Reverse: A full strike is evidenced by the detail in the buffalo's hair. There are no major distracting marks on the surface of the coin.
- High Grade Buffalo Nickels (MS-67) and Books on Coin Grading
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Mint State-67 (MS67 or MS-67)
Summary: The original mint luster is complete and almost perfect. There are only three or four very small and unnoticeable contact marks. Overall, the coin has an extraordinary eye appeal that is hardly ever seen. A few minor hairlines can be found only with magnification.
Obverse: No traces of wear are evident anywhere on the coin. There are no distracting marks and the mint luster is above average.
Reverse: All details of the coin are present even on the highest points of the coin and the eye appeal is superb.
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I have been a coin collector for a majority of my life and I have witnessed firsthand the evolution of coin grading standards over the last forty years. Most recently, I have studied coin grading with professional coin graders from NGC and PCGS. I have read many books and worked with many coin dealers to sharpen my coin grading skills. The information presented in this article is my opinion on how to interpret the many coin grading standards that you will encounter. This is not a universal, absolute and definitive definition on how this particular coinage series should be graded.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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More Coin Grading Resources
I recommend the following books to help you further develop your coin grading skills. Clicking on the links below will find the lowest prices on the Internet for you.
- The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards of United States Coins
- Photograde: A Photographic Grading Encyclopedia for United States Coins
- Making the Grade: A Grading Guide to the Top 50 Most Widely Collected U.S. Coins
- Grading Coins by Photographs
- The Official Guide to Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection