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War Coinage of the United States

Updated on December 5, 2014

1943 Silver War Nickel

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War Coinage of the United States

On December 7, 1941, the United States of America was brought into World War II by a devastating attack by Japan. Before that, the United States did assist with supplying the British who were already engaged in the war in Europe, but did not commit troops to the effort. However, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler on behalf of Germany declared war on the United States, bringing a war in two major theaters to be fought. Now the United States had to supply its own troops with ammunition, and this in turn caused several changes in the United States’ coinage to be made.

The two coins involved are the penny and the nickel. In fact, there were two changes made to the penny.

The 1943 Steel Penny

In 1943 the penny had its composition changed from ninety-five percent copper and five percent tin and zinc to a zinc coated steel one cent piece. These looked different, and were much lighter, but the physical dimensions were preserved. Once in circulation, these coins often turned black. They also had the property that they could be attracted by a magnet.

1943 Pennies

The Later War Years

After 1943 the United States Mint went back to ninety-five percent copper, but the zinc and tin alloy was replaced with just zinc. Both the diameter and the weight resumed the old standards, and these slightly altered pennies continued being minted through 1946.

In circulated condition these tend to look reasonably close to the 1942 and earlier issues.

The Silver Nickel

The nickel before the war was seventy-five percent copper and twenty-five percent nickel. During the war the nickel, improperly named, was composed of fifty-six percent copper, thirty-five percent silver, and nine percent manganese. While silver is more valuable, wartime needs of strategic metals outweighed the cost of the raw materials from which nickels were minted.

In 1942 the United States Mint was striking five cent pieces at both Philadelphia and Denver, and changed to the war coinage during the year at the Philadelphia Mint. The United States minted only war nickels at the San Francisco Mint during 1942. These pieces are easily distinguished by the large mintmark above the dome on the reverse, neither its normal size or location. They were minted at all three mints through the 1945 run. This is a short, easily collected series of eleven coins, two in 1942, and three in each of 1943, 1944, and 1945.

When these coins are circulated they often take on a greenish hue or darker shade.

The quality of any Jefferson nickel including those minted with the special alloy is determined by the number of clear steps on the reverse. If you can count six steps, you have a higher quality coin.

Silver War Nickels

1943 Copper Pennies

A few copper pennies slipped through the minting process in the 1943 run. These are very rare. These few are valuable. However, be aware that people have coated steel pennies with copper and tried to pass them off as rare copper coins. If you ever encounter a penny that appears to be copper bearing the 1943 date check it with a magnet.

The Current Collectability

The pennies, except for the 1944 D over S and the 1943 D bold double mintmark error, are rather inexpensive. But, one cannot take mint errors as indicative of value of a typical group of coins. Yes, higher grade 1943 steel coins are somewhat higher in value, but not outrageously so.

Wartime nickels do have some support from their silver content, yet remain affordable. The three exceptions are the 1943P 3 over 2, the 1943P double eye, and the 1945P double die reverse. Again, prices of error coins is often much higher than other coins.

Not Every Coin Was Changed

The dime, quarter and half dollar remained unchanged. Their compositions were not altered during the years of World War II. There were no dollars produced during that period.

Not the First Radical Change

The Civil War had an even more radical effect on money. With metal becoming scarce because of use during the war, paper currency called fractional currency was printed in small denominations. These small denominations, parts of a dollar, became known as fractional currency. The quality of fractional currency was poor because the paper from which it was made was rag paper. Occasionally, large pieces of the original rag from which the paper was made would make a very unsightly splotch in the paper. This was not something that could later be removed, so fractional currency is not only made of paper, but a low grade of paper.


Compared to fractional currency, the changes in the content of the penny and of the nickel during World War II is a minor thing. At least coins were still coins, and their sizes remained unaltered.

Easily Found

While it is rare to find any of the wartime coins in circulation, they do occasionally show up. The nickels appear more often than the steel pennies, simply because they are less conspicuous and avoid detection. A penny that is the wrong color really stands out. However, finding these for sale is easy. The problem with lower grades is that if you buy lower grades online you are not so likely to get a bargain, simply because the shipping cost is high compared to the value. A 50 cent item or even a two dollar item is less attractive when a dollar or two shipping is applied. With that in mind, opting for higher grades makes the shipping a smaller percentage of what you will pay. This allows a chance to recoup your money if the value of the coin goes up.


When will values go up? That cannot be determined, but during a bad economy people often release what they were holding onto, and others are inclined to put less into acquiring pieces for their collections. Perhaps if the economy improves the values of these coins will appreciate. But that is just something we can hope for, not something we can have assurance of happening.

Assuring the Grade

First, there is a huge price difference between MS63 and MS65 in price, yet many of us would be hard pressed to be aboe to mae the determination. And, taking someone's word for a grade is problematic when that person is selling the coin So, involving a third party grading service gives some credence to the grade claimed. True, grading services make errors, but no as often as a person hoping for more miney from a sale.


Silver nickels can be uncirculated, yet have too mant or too deep bag marks. A bag mark occurs when coins bump or rub against each other in a bag from the mnt. The surface of the silver nickel and the softness of the metal, allow for bag marks to occur more easily. Some minor bag marks are not a problem, but excessive bag marks allow the seller to claim uncirculated but decrease the value of the coin. Bag marks are less of a problem with steel pennies.


Many coin collectors consider PSCS to be the best, and NGC second in accurate grading. Some grading services will grade what they think will make the coin owner happy in the hope of getting more business from that person.


So, selecting a coin in a slag by PCGS should solve the grading problem, right? Wrong. Even the best grading services make mistakes. Another thing is that a coin exposed to environmental damage might have a problem that does not become apparent for years, so the grade, even for a coin in a slag, change over time.



The Designs

The only difference in the war nickels and other Jefferson nickels is the location and size of the mint mark, and the fact that the Philadelphia mint mark was used. The pennies, except for color, look just link any other Lincoln cent. No new designs were made for these special issues, the main change was to the metal content of the respective coins.

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    • Blackspaniel1 profile image
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      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      I got many in change myself.

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 2 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I remember when I was a kid, we'd often find those steel pennies in with change. My father used to get us all around the table examining change. It was fun!

    • Blackspaniel1 profile image
      Author

      Blackspaniel1 2 years ago

      Yes, there really is a connection.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      This is interesting and reminds us how much coin collecting can teach us of history.