Letter Re: Pre-1965 U.S. Silver Coin Confusion

James Wesley,
I have just recently came across your blog. Thank you. I also just started saving nickels. I am a bit confused. Do you save all nickels or just pre-1965? I just finished Patriots this morning. Are the silver pieces used for barter in your novel nickels? Thanks, – Brent H.

JWR Replies: You aren’t the only one that is confused about nickels, since outwardly, they appear as if they might be made of silver. To clarify: In general, it is just pre-1965 dimes, quarters, half dollar and dollars are 90% silver. The only nickels with silver content were made from 1942 to 1945, when WWII caused a strategic shortage of nickel. (These are 35% silver, and commonly called “War Nickels”, by collectors.) All other post-1945 U.S. nickels, including those of current production, are 75% copper and 25% nickel.

Because the base metal value of nickels is now nearly as great as their face value, it is likely that the metals formulation of nickels will soon be changed. (It now costs the U.S. Mint more than five cents to mint each nickel.) For that reason, I recommend that my readers accumulate rolls of nickels as an inflation hedge, before any such change takes place.

The other US con that causes confusion is the half dollar. These were formulated with 90% silver up until 1964, then 40% silver from 1965 to 1970, and then nearly worthless silver-plated copper slugs (“cupronickel coins”) from 1971 onward.

There are a few exceptions to the foregoing, such as Mint Proof Sets, some of which are still minted in 90% silver, but the chances of finding any of those in circulation is miniscule.