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The 1938 nickel represents the first year of the Jefferson nickel series, which is still in production today.
While all 1938 nickels are worth more than face value, some are much scarcer – and more valuable – than others.
Here’s how to tell what your 1938 nickel is worth, and how to determine if you have a scarce or valuable 1938 Jefferson nickel…
Are 1938 Nickels Rare?
Jefferson nickels went into production for the first time on October 3, 1938.
While 1938 nickels are difficult to find in pocket change these days, they are much easier to find among coin collector circles. In fact, there are millions still in existence — but most of them are held among collectors or found in the numismatic marketplace.
The most common 1938 nickels were struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
What Is The “Full Steps” Grading Designation On Jefferson Nickels?
There’s an important grading term exclusively relating to Jefferson nickels called “Full Steps.” This designation refers to the 5 (or 6) steps seen near the base of Monticello on the reverse (“tails side”) of the Jefferson nickel.
This designation only applies to uncirculated Jefferson nickels – those that don’t show any signs of wear at all.
Therefore, that 1938 Jefferson nickel you just pulled out of pocket change which shows very little wear and “looks almost mint” or “nearly perfect” can’t be a Full Steps nickel — because the coin does have some wear from being in circulation.
The only Full Steps Jefferson nickels you’ll ever encounter in circulation are:
- Newly minted Jefferson nickels that were just broken out of an uncirculated coin roll or mint set
- Or those that you find in an old roll of Mint State Jefferson nickels
For the most part, the only way to acquire a 1938 Full Steps nickel worth a lot of money is to buy one from a coin dealer.
How Much Is A 1938 Nickel Worth?
So, what determines 1938 nickel values?
A few things, including:
- The date-and-mintmark combination on the coin
- The presence or absence of Full Steps details
- The coin’s overall condition
Here are the various types of 1938 Jefferson nickels and how much they’re worth today…
1938 Jefferson Nickel With No Mintmark
Philadelphia-minted 1938 Jefferson nickels don’t have a mintmark of any kind. These nickels had a mintage of 19,496,000 — making it by far the highest-mintage Jefferson nickel issue of the year.
Most of the surviving 1938 Jefferson nickels are known in circulated grades. However, even Mint States examples, which are much smaller in number, are plentiful enough that they can be easily found at coin shops and bought for a price.
A typical 1938 nickel with an average amount of wear is worth 15 to 25 cents. Examples in Mint State grades are worth about $5 and up.
The all-time record price for the 1938 Jefferson nickel? That goes to an outstanding specimen graded MS-67 by Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) with Full Steps. It sold for $8,625 in a 2006 auction.
The 1938-D Jefferson nickel is a tough date with a lower mintage of only 5,376,000 pieces.
Highly scarce in circulation today, most collectors seeking this coin end up buying it from a coin dealer. While it’s a valuable coin, it’s not cost prohibitive for most collectors.
In worn condition, the 1938-D trades for $2 to $3. Uncirculated examples sell for $6 and up.
The record price for the 1938-D nickel is $4,993.75, paid in a 2014 auction for a PCGS-certified example grading MS-67+ with Full Steps.
The 1938-S nickel is the rarest business-strike issue of the 3 different 1938 nickels produced for circulation.
This San Francisco Mint coin saw a mintage of 4,105,000 — with perhaps half or fewer surviving today. As with all vintage Jefferson nickels, the vast majority of existing pieces are in worn condition.
Circulated examples of the 1938-S Jefferson nickel are generally worth $3 to $5, with uncirculated pieces trading for $8 or more.
The record price for the 1938-S Jefferson is $9,200 — which was a specimen graded by PCGS as an MS-67 Full Steps.
1938 Proof Nickel
The 1938 proof Jefferson nickel was made exclusively for coin collectors.
Just 19,365 were struck, making it one of the lowest mintages in the entire Jefferson nickel series.
Most 1938 proof Jefferson nickels are worth around $100, though nicer specimens command much more than that.
The record price for a 1938 Jefferson proof nickel was a specimen that was graded PR-67 by PCGS and sold for a whopping $5,980 in 2001.
1938 Buffalo Nickel
Did you know that not all 1938 nickels bear the familiar Jefferson design?
During the first months of 1938, the U.S. Mint was still striking Buffalo nickels… until October 3, 1938!
Designed by James Fraser, the Buffalo nickel was in production from 1913 through 1938 and is one of the most popular classic coins even today.
Named for the American bison (mistakenly called a buffalo) standing prominently on the reverse, the Buffalo nickel showcases the bust of a Native American chief on the obverse. Some collectors, therefore, call these coins “Indian nickels” or “Indian head nickels.”
Must Read: The ultimate 1938 Buffalo nickel value guide.
IMPORTANT: Do You Know The Grade Of Your Nickel?
To determine the true value of your 1938 nickel, you first need to know what condition (or grade) your coin is in.
Grab a coin magnifier and a copy of the U.S. Coin Grading Standards book. Then, watch this video to see how to grade coins yourself at home:
What About 1938 Nickel Errors & Varieties?
While there aren’t any major doubled dies currently known among 1938 Jefferson nickels, that doesn’t mean there are none yet to be discovered.
Besides, doubled dies aren’t the only variety worth looking for!
Here are some other errors and varieties to look for on 1938 nickels:
Repunched Mintmarks On 1938 Nickels
Back in 1938, United States Mint coiners still individually hand-punched mintmarks onto dies. This is why the mintmarks are sometimes in slightly different locations on old coins of the same date. This also left room for varieties to happen – such as doubling and tripling of mintmarks and other oddities. These are categorized by many collectors as repunched mintmarks. While most repunched mintmarks aren’t necessarily rare, they’re always collectible. Most are worth $3 to $5 — though some of the more dramatic mintmark varieties are worth much more.
Off-Center Strikes On 1938 Nickels
When the dies are misaligned or a coin isn’t properly centered on the presses, an off-center strike may occur. Off-centered coins are worth much more than face value — though actual values for these coins depends on the merits of the individual off-center error. Old Jefferson nickels that are missing half of the design but still show a complete date can be worth more than $100.
Die Clashes On 1938 Nickels
When the obverse (“heads side”) and reverse dies hit each other on the press without a blank coin (or planchet) in between, parts of the design may transfer from die to die. These damaged dies will go on to strike other coins — with parts of the obverse design on the reverse, and vice versa. Light die clashes are typically worth only $3 to $5, though more drastic die clashes are usually worth $20 or more.
U.S. Nickel Design Changes
When the U.S. Mint was ready to replace the Native American and Buffalo motif with the Jefferson bust in 1938, officials chose a design by Felix Schlag — who won a design competition with his profile of President Thomas Jefferson on the obverse and a design of his sprawling Virginia home (Monticello) on the reverse.
The Jefferson nickel has undergone a couple of other major changes over the years, including:
- The Westward Journey series of 2004 through 2005
- The new forward-looking head designed by James Franki and sculpted by Donna Weaver.
Still, it’s one of the longest running design types in United States numismatic history!
I’m the Coin Editor here at TheFunTimesGuide. My love for coins began when I was 11 years old. I primarily collect and study U.S. coins produced during the 20th century. I’m a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA) and the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) and have won multiple awards from the NLG for my work as a coin journalist. I’m also the editor at the Florida United Numismatists Club (FUN Topics magazine), and author of Images of America: The United States Mint in Philadelphia (a book that explores the colorful history of the Philadelphia Mint). I’ve contributed hundreds of articles for various coin publications including COINage, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, Coin Dealer Newsletter, Coin Values, and CoinWeek. I’ve authored nearly 1,000 articles here at The Fun Times Guide to Coins (many of them with over 50K shares), and I welcome your coin questions in the comments below!