The Buffalo Nickel or Indian Head Nickel as it is also known has been called the most iconic of all of America’s coinage. Designed by James Earle Fraser, it depicts a Native American in the obverse and the American Bison on the reverse of the coin. It was struck between 1913 and 1938.
Although he was no longer the President Teddy Roosevelt had desired to change the dull, boring American coinage of the day to something grander – similar to the classical Greek and Roman coins of ancient times.
As the first coins rolled off the presses in 1913, the Mint understood that there was a problem. The relief on the coin was so high that the date and the denomination wore off very easily. The changes that were implemented were to make the numerals in the date on the obverse wider and the legend “FIVE CENTS” was enlarged. One additional change was the bison went from standing on a mound to standing on flat ground with a line above the legend “FIVE CENTS.” The problem was also that Fraser’s work had intricate designs in the Native American’s hair, braid and feathers which were difficult to fill. Likewise, the Buffalo’s horn, cape and tail were difficult to strike up.
Fraser’s design accomplished EXACTLY what Fraser set out to do. He wanted a coin that was uniquely American, and the American Bison was the “Master of the Plains,” and the Native American Chief complemented the design.
Coins, at various times, were struck at all three US Mints – Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. The coins struck at the branch mints are generally not as well-struck as the Philadelphia coins are/
As coins were struck several rarities were unintentionally struck as well. A 1916/1916 with a Doubled Die Obverse as well as a 1918/7-D overdate were struck. The most well-known of all of the rarities is the 1937-D 3-Legged Buffalo, where one of the hind legs was worn away from the die creating this truly rare coin.