Many people have a Buffalo Nickel with no date on it and wonder if they could reveal the year and how much it is worth. You may see a lot of websites that state there are Buffalo nickel key dates for the "S" and "D" mint marks. But without the year, how do you determine how much the coin is worth?
Why Did the Date Wear Off?
The dates on many Buffalo Nickels have worn off because the date was on a raised portion of the design and these nickels circulated very heavily for many decades. If the date is not present on the coin, the coin it will not carry a numismatic premium. A coin collector must know the date to determine its value and know if it is a rare nickel or not. Undated Buffalo nickels are worth about ten cents each, but only because people use them for jewelry, shirt buttons, and a variety of other uses. All other types of nickels without dates are only worth face value.
The first Buffalo Nickels produced by The United States Mint in 1913 featured the denomination of FIVE CENTS on a raised mound of dirt below the buffalo on the reverse of the coin. This design flaw caused the denomination to where off of the coin prematurely. Approximately halfway through 1913, James Earl Fraser modified his design to recessed the denomination below the level of the coin's rim. This protected the lettering from wearing off the coin. Additionally, the mint mark is also located in this area and is shielded from the harsh environment of circulating coinage.
What Does the "F" Mean?
The letter "F" you see on the "heads" side under the place where the date should stands for the designers last name, James Earl Fraser. All Buffalo nickels have the designer's initials on it regardless of the mint facility where it was manufactured.
If your coin has a mint mark, it will be under the buffalo on the reverse ("tails") side of the coin, below the words FIVE CENTS. If the Philadelphia mint produced the coin, there would be no mint mark. The letter "D" indicates the Denver mint facility, and "S" stands for San Francisco. Key date coins are susceptible to unscrupulous people trying to add a mint mark to a common date coin in an effort to increase its value. Before spending big dollars on a rare Buffalo nickel, make sure it's authenticated by a reputable coin dealer.
Recovering the Date
Sometimes it is possible to recover the date on a dateless Buffalo nickel by putting a drop of ferric chloride on the spot where the date used to be. This chemical called a "date restorer" is sold under the trade name "Nic-A-Date." Although it will cause the date to reappear on a Buffalo Nickel which has lost its date, ferric chloride also leaves a blotchy, rough, acid spot of damage on the coin that ruins any value the nickel might have had. Also, the date will fade again over time, and each time you use the chemical again, it brings back less and less of the date (leaving an increasingly ugly acid mark instead.)
Never used chemicals on the surface of your nickels to restore partial dates because partial-date Buffalo Nickels are worth more than totally dateless nickels. Depending on which digits are showing, the nickel can be worth anywhere from 50 cents (if the part showing is the first 2 or 3 digits) to about 20% of market value if the last two or three digits are readable.
How It's Identifiable Without the Date
Originally the reverse side of the Buffalo nickel had the denomination of "FIVE CENTS" displayed on a mound of dirt beneath the Buffalo. As these nickels began to circulate in their first year of issue, 1913, the United States Mint noticed that the denomination was wearing away prematurely.
Approximately halfway through 1913, the design was reworked, and the mound of dirt that the buffalo is standing on was changed to have a recessed space beneath it to display the denomination of "FIVE CENTS." This new design eliminated the problem of the date wearing away prematurely.
You can get a list of the Buffalo nickel key dates, or find out how much your full-date Buffalo nickels are worth in the Buffalo nickel price guide.