The nickel five-cent denomination was inaugurated in 1866 by a shield design created by James B. Longacre. After the Civil War, silver coins sold at a premium in the marketplace, negating them for use in commerce. For the five-cent coin, a version in nickel metal would permit circulation and prevent hoarding. The design was hardly new but was a loose adaptation of the motif Longacre had used on the two-cent piece of 1864.
The coins of 1866 had on the reverse a series of rays between the stars. This caused problems in striking, as the metal flow resulted in weakness of details. In early 1867 the rays were discontinued. Relatively few of the 1867 Rays coins were made, resulting in the creation of numismatic rarities. This was particularly true of Proofs. I recall that there was great excitement at the American Numismatic Association Convention in Omaha in August 1955 when I paid the record price of $510 for one. At age 16 I was viewed as a precocious teenager with a lot of money (which was not true) and not much business sense (which I hope was not true!) This resulted in coins being offered to me from all directions!
Shield nickels continued to be made for circulation through early in the year 1883, when the motif was replaced by the Liberty Head. In 1883, overdate 1883/2 coins were also produced. Exceptions were 1877 and 1878, when only Proofs were made to be included in sets for collectors. The mintage of the 1878 Proofs was given as 2,350. That of the 1877 was not recorded but has been estimated as 1,500 or so.
Today in 2021 a full set of Shield nickels can be collected in high grades, but a degree of patience is required. Among circulation strikes, 1880 and 1881 are rarities in Mint State, although easily enough found in Proof format. Certified coins answer the problem of grading but do nothing to address the sharpness of strike. Nickels of 1866 and 1867 with Rays are often weak in areas, so cherrypicking is advised and costs no more. The only requirement is a degree of patience. Have fun!
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