1943 Steel Penny: Value and Legacy
There are few vintage coins as widely collected as the 1943 steel penny. This applies within and even beyond the numismatic realm. This unusual-looking Lincoln wheat cent is unlike any other United States one-cent coin.
Its zinc-coated steel composition makes this coin resemble a dime more than a typical U.S. penny. But why were these odd coins made, what are they worth, and how does a hobbyist go about collecting 1943 steel cents?
1943 Lincoln Wheat cent, steel composition. Image: USA CoinBook
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Making The 1943 Steel Cent
The steel penny may seem like a random anomaly to some. Yet the coin has a vital connection to an international historical event. The 1943 steel cent was produced during the height of World War II. This global conflict saw the United States military's involvement from 1941 through 1945.
During World War II, the Allied Forces needed many essential resources to help optimize success in the war. These materials, including copper and nickel, were used for producing ammunition and artillery.
However, copper and nickel were also integral in making coins. Thus, alternative metals were considered for minting coins. These coins traditionally consisted mostly of copper and nickel.
Therefore, the Lincoln cent and Jefferson nickel became prime targets for temporary but necessary metallic alterations. An act of Congress in 1942 approved a provisional 35% silver composition for the nickel. This paved the way for an emergency composition for the one-cent coin as well.
A litany of tests and patterns followed for the emergency composition, including plastic and glass. The most cost-effective replacement metal for the Lincoln cent was determined to be a low-grade steel planchet. These zinc-coated steel planchets represented an efficient and affordable avenue for making the 1943 pennies and rationing copper for the war effort.
However, many in the public were less than thrilled with the alternative composition. The steel cents were often confused with the dime, causing some folks to lose 9 cents (or more) in a cash transaction. Others blasted the coins for their tendency to quickly rust once the outer zinc coating wore off the coin, exposing the steel core.
The United States Mint eventually acquiesced to the concerns of the public. In 1944 the US Mint resumed using a copper-based composition for the Lincoln cent. This was accomplished by using copper shell casings gathered from military training facilities. These so-called shell case cents, struck through 1946, consist of 95% copper and 5% zinc. This is somewhat different than the typical 95% copper, 5% tin and zinc composition generally used at the time for producing Lincoln cents.
1943 Steel Cent Value
Image: USA CoinBook
Most 1943 steel pennies aren’t worth much above their face value. This may come as something of a surprise to the many who believe these coins are quite valuable. That common misperception likely stems from the popularity of the well-known 1943 bronze cents. This off-metal transitional error was accidentally struck when a few leftover 1942 copper planchets were fed through the presses at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints.
The 1943 copper cents are extremely rare and valuable. Only a couple dozen pieces were made, and each is worth about $100,000. While 1943 copper cents weigh about 3.11 grams and don’t stick to a magnet, the more common steel cents (which weigh 2.8 grams) adhere to a magnet. When it comes to evaluating 1943 Lincoln cents, the duo of a magnet and gram scale has broken many hearts and burst many bubbles over the years.
The 1943 steel cents are quite common, and more than 1 billion were struck. Broken down by each mint, the individual mintages are as follows:
1943 Philadelphia Mint cents – 684,628,670
1943-D Denver Mint cents – 217,660,000
1943-S San Francisco cents – 191,550,000
Many 1943 steel cents ultimately corroded beyond recognition or were otherwise lost to time. However, there are still millions of collectible 1943 pennies out there. Hence, these are relatively common coins and are worth relatively little in circulated grades.
Most 1943 pennies in worn grades trade for around 10 to 25 cents apiece. Typical uncirculated examples usually realize $1 to $5. Top-level specimens in grades of Mint State-67 or better can go for much more, sometimes hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
There are also some significant varieties among the 1943 steel cents, including the 1943-D/D repunched mintmark. This widely collected variety is worth more than $100 in Extremely Fine-40 and upward of $400 in Mint State-63. While there is no known mintage figure for the 1943-D/D Lincoln cent, it’s estimated that perhaps 3,000 to 5,000 examples may exist across all grades.
What About 1944 Steel Cents?
1944 steel Lincoln cent. Image: PCGS
As mentioned above, 1943 copper pennies are rare and valuable. Their steel counterparts are much more common. Ironically, the transition back to the normal bronze composition in 1944 reversed this situation!
1944 bronze cents are common, but a few of the steel-coated zinc coins were minted that year by mistake. Thus, 1944 steel cents are exceptionally scarce and command very high values.
Confusing which is which between the two years could cost you dearly.
Collecting the 1943 Lincoln Cent
Many coin collectors include the various 1943 pennies among their larger collections of Lincoln cents. However, the trio of business-strike Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco 1943 Lincoln steel cents constitute a very popular one-year short set. This set is commonly sold in mass-market offerings—particularly as a set of “reprocessed” (stripped and recoated) pieces assembled in plastic display cases and sold via general-readership newspaper and magazine advertisements.
There is no right or wrong way to collect 1943 Lincoln cents. Given their novelty, they also make great gifts and have helped spark numismatic interests in folks who otherwise may not have become coin collectors. Indeed, whether collected as part of a short set or incorporated into a larger run of Lincoln cents, the 1943 steel pennies are favorites among non-numismatists and veteran coin collectors alike.
Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a journalist, editor, and blogger who has won multiple awards from the Numismatic Literary Guild. He has also authored numerous books, including works profiling the history of the United States Mint and United States coinage.
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