The Shield Nickel was the first United States five-cent piece (abbreviated as 5¢) to be made out of copper-nickel, the same alloy of which American nickels are struck today (75% copper, 25% nickel). Designed by James B. Longacre, the coin was issued from 1866 until 1883, when it was replaced by the Liberty Head nickel. The coin takes its name from the motif on its obverse, and was the first five-cent coin referred to as a "nickel"; silver pieces of that denomination had been known as "half dimes" (the Seated Liberty half dime was issued in parallel with the new nickels for several years).
Silver half dimes had been struck from the early days of the United States Mint in the late 18th century. Those disappeared from circulation, along with most other coins, in the economic turmoil of the Civil War. In 1864, the Mint successfully introduced low-denomination coins, whose intrinsic worth did not approach their face value. Industrialist Joseph Wharton advocated coins containing nickel - a metal in which he had significant financial interests. When the Mint proposed a copper-nickel five-cent piece, Congress required that the coin be heavier than the Mint had suggested, allowing Wharton to sell more of the metal to the government.
Longacre's design was based on his two-cent pieces, and symbolises the strength of a unified America. The nickel proved difficult to strike and the reverse, or tails, design was modified in 1867. Even so, production difficulties continued, causing many minor varieties which are collected today. Minting of the Shield nickel for circulation was suspended in 1876 for a period of over two years due to a glut of low-denomination coinage and it was struck in only small quantities until 1882. The following year, the coin was replaced by Charles E. Barber's Liberty Head design.
These coins have not been recalled and are still current, although they do not circulate any more - most having been worn out, lost or hoarded by collectors.
The obverse design shows, within a toothed border, Longacre's version of the Great Seal of the United States.
His design focuses on the shield, or escutcheon, as a defensive weapon, signifying strength and self-protection through unity. The upper part of the shield, or "chief", symbolises Congress, while the 13 vertical stripes, or "paleways", represent the states (originally, there were 13 states); consequently the entire escutcheon symbolises the strength of the federal government through the unity of the states. In heraldic engraving, thin vertical lines represent red, clear areas white and horizontal lines blue, thus the escutcheon is coloured red, white and blue and is meant to evoke the American flag.
The crossed arrows below the shield represent non-aggression, but imply readiness against attack. The laurel branches around, taken from Greek tradition, symbolise victory. Above the shield is a decorative cross.
Around above, the national motto IN GOD WE TRUST; below the shield, the date of issue: [year].
At centre, surrounded by 13 six-pointed stars representing the original 13 states, a large numeral 5 for the value. Around below, the denomination CENTS.
All coins struck in 1866 and some of those struck in 1867 have rays radiating from the value, separating the stars. The feature was later removed.
Around above, the legend · UNITED STATES OF AMERICA ·.
There is no mint mark.