What Are Nickels Made Of?
The United States nickel coin is made from 75% copper and 25% nickel.
Five-cent coins are sometimes referred to as “silver” coinage by folks counting their coins and separating their one-cent coins out from everything else in their pocket change. And while it may be technically incorrect to refer to the nickel as “silver,” our nation’s five-cent coins have been made from silver in the past, and on more than one occasion.
So, what are nickels made of anyhow? Let’s take a deep dive into the history of the nickel and how it is made.
Since 1938, the U.S. Mint has made the Jefferson nickel five cent coin from an alloy of 75% copper, 25% nickel.
Nickels Were Silver? Nickel Coin Changes Over Time
When the United States five-cent coin debuted in 1794, it was known as the half-dime and was struck from a silver composition. This silver five-cent coin was in production until 1873, by which time the coin now known as the “nickel” had already been struck for several years.
The nickel five-cent coin was authorized by an Act of Congress on May 16, 1866, and was struck from the same 75% copper, 25% nickel composition that had been in use with the contemporary three-cent nickel in circulation since 1865.
The Shield design marked the first type of nickel in production by the United States Mint. It is essentially identical with the nickel composition as we know it today. The biggest exception is in the physical diameter of the coins. The Shield nickel measures 20.5 millimeters in diameter, whereas all nickels struck since Liberty type of 1883 have been 21.2 millimeters in diameter – same as today. Also of similarity is the weight of the nickel, which has been 5 grams since 1866.
War Nickels: 1942–1945
Nickels have seen relatively few changes in their physical specifications over the years. There was at least one notable, if temporary, tweak in metallic composition during the 1940s. The nickel changed to 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese for four years during the war.
The onset of World War II called for widespread rations on all kinds of material goods, from sugar and meat to rubber and, yes, even nickel – the latter a hard metal that was critical for making war artillery.
On October 8, 1942, Congress approved the U.S. Mint to make five-cent coins from a silver-based composition that eliminated nickel while still lending the coin the necessary weight and metallic composition for use in commerce and acceptance in vending machines. This wartime composition is composed of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese, which is an alloy that approximated the appearance of the nickel-based five-cent coins while keeping the weight and diameter identical to traditional nickels.
These so-called silver “war nickels” were in production from late 1942 through 1945. They are readily identifiable thanks to the presence of a large mintmark over the dome of Monticello on the reverse.
Reverse design of a silver war nickel, made from 35% silver. The large mintmark distinguishes these coins from their cupro-nickel counterparts.
World War II ended in 1945, and with it came the end of the silver Jefferson “nickels,” with the regular copper-nickel composition returning in 1946. Nickels continue to be made from this same alloy today.
The Future of the Nickel’s Nickel Composition
The rising prices of copper and nickel, along with the increasing costs of coin production, have persuaded some Congressional leaders and others in the government to raise the possibility that the nation’s five-cent coin might either one day be made from a cheaper metal, such as steel.
Some have even suggested the denomination should be scrapped altogether due to the coin’s diminishing purchasing power – a potential fate many have long foreseen, but has yet to be realized, for the penny. Whether this comes to pass for either the one-cent coin or the nickel remains a seemingly remote possibility at best as of this writing.
As is the case with the penny, millions of Americans still prefer having the nickel in circulation and use it daily. Many in the public also worry about the automatic inflation that would occur for items or services purchased in cash transactions if prices were rounded up to the nearest dime, which would become the lowest-denomination coin should a scenario play out that the penny and nickel are eliminated.
Jefferson nickels are still made from their traditional copper-nickel alloy . . . for now.
How Are Nickels Made?
The nickel is struck in a process like that used for producing the dime and quarter, all of which are blanked at the mint from long sheets of metal. Once the little round discs are cut from the metal sheets, the blanks are annealed, or softened, in a furnace so they are easier to strike. After the annealing process, nickel blanks are washed and dried.
Nickels are then fed into an upsetting device, which raises a slight lip around the edge of the coin where the rim will be formed upon strike. After a blank has been upset, the piece of metal technically becomes known as a planchet – a metal disc ready to be struck into money.
Nickel planchets are then processed into the striking press, where obverse and reverse dies impress designs onto the broad faces of the coin while a retaining collar simultaneously ensures the edge is well formed and smooth.
From there, these new nickels are inspected to ensure they are up to snuff and free of errors or other oddities. The nickels are then counted and bagged, ready to be shipped to Federal Reserve locations around the United States for distribution into circulation.
Read more about the how coins are made on the Gainesville Coins blog by following the link.
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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