The 1880 Shield Nickel is the undisputed key date of the series as well as one of the rarest circulation strike nickels ever made. Its mintage was a scant 16,000 pieces and attrition from circulation was very high, leaving few surviving examples. The coins are difficult to find in any grade and particularly in uncirculated condition. The Philadelphia Mint had also produced 3,955 proofs for the year, but due to the much higher survival rate this version remains much more available.
Originally, the five cent pieces produced for circulation within the United States were struck from silver and referred to as half dimes. However, rising silver prices eventually made the half dime no longer profitable for the Mint to produce, and additionally there had been complains for many years that the coins were too small and were easily lost.
In 1866 the nickel was introduced, which was struck from a composition of copper and nickel. Nickel had been used since ancient times and was known for its hardness. Widespread use, however, did not come until the early 19th century when nickel was discovered to be a byproduct of cobalt blue production. The United States Mint started using nickel in their coins in 1857, when the first small cents were produced for circulation. The coins, which a distinctive color, where soon called “nickels” in circulation. However, due to difficulties in striking the coins, the alloy for cents was soon replaced with a bronze composition.
The Shield Nickel was the first series for the new five cent coins. The obverse design featured a large shield with the reverse carrying the denomination. As with the cents, the coins were difficult to strike up fully and many of the coins feature incomplete strikes. Additionally, production was very hard on the dies and many show die cracks or breaks. The Mint, however, continued production and by the mid 1870’s they were turning out a steady supply of nickels each year. Mintages, however, soon dropped to minimal levels resulting in two years or proof only strikings and the creation of the extremely low mintage circulation strike 1880 Shield Nickel.