How to Grade Buffalo Nickels by Tom Hallenbeck

Permission to print this text has been given by Ken Hallenbeck Coin Gallery, Inc.

One of the most difficult coins to grade for collectors and dealers is the Buffalo nickel. The subtle difference between an AU58 (often called a slider in coin lingo) and a true uncirculated coin (MS60) is often missed. This simplified method of grading is quick and easy, because if the coin is not uncirculated, it must be circulated! Buffalo nickels can be graded fastest by looking at the reverse (back) of the coin. When the nickel was struck between 1913 and 1938, the hammer die was the reverse die. Typically the hammer die is the obverse, but this was one of those few coins that the reverse was the top of the coin.

Back to grading. First, make sure the coin has full luster and no obvious spots of wear. This applies to both sides, so take a quick cursory glance at both the obverse and reverse and a quick overall opinion.

Next concentrate on the reverse. The first place your eye should look at is not the horn, which most people look at, but concentrate on the hip-bone of the buffalo. There protrudes a sharp spot above the thigh that must be rounded to be uncirculated. If there appears to be any flatness, then the coin is circulated. This is a more reliable method of grading than looking at the horn. Sometimes, if the nickel was not fully struck, there may not even be a full horn on an MS63 coin. Then you have to grade by luster, not strike. But that is for another coin grading lesson. Once you have determined if there is a flat spot on the buffalo's hip-bone, then start expanding your viewing of the rest of the coin.

The next spot that usually will show wear is the shoulder of the buffalo, but sometimes, like the horn, this can be affected by strike.

Remember, when determining whether a Buffalo nickel is uncirculated or not, look first at the overall luster, which must be unbroken and intact. Luster I like to think of as the "skin" of a coin. There should be a smooth, sometimes satiny appearance that is on all parts of the nickel, both on the highest and lowest points of the coin. Next flip the coin over to look at the buffalo and especially on the hip-bone of the buffalo. There should be luster even on top of the buffalo's hip to be considered uncirculated. If there is any break in luster on the coin or flatness, starting first on the hip, then the coin can grade no higher than AU 58.