Break a Leg – The 1937-D 3-Legged Buffalo
By: Jonathan Muehleck
Of all the coins that seem to consistently engage the numismatic world, the infamous and illusive 3-legged buffalo nickel wins a gold medal. Ask any accomplished numismatist about this key date and your inquiry will likely be met with a smile and a personal story. I, along with likely many other collectors, have a unique story pertaining to this nickel. Few would have guessed that a small mistake by a rookie U.S. Mint employee would result in a staple of the error coin community almost a century later. Consequently, numerous fakes have been made of this unique rarity. Though many have tried to replicate the 1937-D error nickel, a real example is unlikely to be found in your grandfather’s peanut can of old coins. Even so, many have fantasized of this subtle, yet notorious, error.
A Little Mistake That Became a Big One
The year was 1937. A new and fairly inexperienced mint worker at the Denver Mint, known as Mr. Young (according to Walter Breen’s 1988 Encyclopedia), was minting Buffalo nickels when the feeder suddenly stopped. Without any planchets to strike, the dies clashed, and each die was left with an impression of the other. Instead of replacing the dies (as was proper protocol), the rookie employee decided just to grind the impressions off the faces and put the dies back into use. While rubbing the imperfections off, he accidentally ground off the front leg of the buffalo design, as well as some of the back leg of the buffalo. Hence, a select few nickels lost a leg before the error was noticed. [Image Source: U.S. Coin Values Advisor]
Nobody knows exactly how many were produced, but it is estimated that perhaps approximately 10,000 made it out into circulation. Unfortunately, few thought to keep buffalo nickels in those days, and since the error was so subtle, they often went unnoticed as they circulated, enduring the grueling war of the American Economy. As time went on and these nickels passed through hands, vending machines, and parking meters, the slight error became more and more difficult to notice for the untrained eye.
Real or Fake?
The likelihood of finding a 3-legged buffalo nickel is quite low if you’re simply browsing through jars of old coins stuffed away in basements or if you’re buying a collecting at an estate sale. One might perhaps do better to purchase a certified, graded, slabbed example at auction, if willing to accept the price tag.
Aside from simply finding a possible specimen, it must also be authenticated. This shouldn’t be a problem with a certified piece (at least with most reputable grading companies) but beware if you are purchasing a “raw” coin. The first thing one should do if a potential piece is found is to make sure that it isn’t just a regular ’37-D that someone rubbed the leg off of. There are a few criteria that you can look for on your potential error:
- There should be a raised ridge under the buffalo’s belly. Many have observed that “if the front leg is missing, it has to be – [relieving itself].”
- The letters P and U in “E Pluribus Unum” should not be touching the buffalo’s back.
- Look where the leg should be. If you see any evidence of tooling or polishing, it may be a fake.
- There should be some distress on the left back leg, due to the over-polishing of the dies by Mr. Young.
Of course, there are a few more subtle differences that may denote the coin as real or fake, but these are widely known as the more noticeable of them. Quite a few have attempted to replicate the 3-legged buffalo nickel, but these key characteristics should distinguish a true piece from a fake. If you have any doubts about your coin, you might consider sending it to a grading service or someone who you believe can reliably authenticate your coin.
The Best of the Best
Some might question the significance of the absence of a leg, but the author believes that there is more to it than that – there are many collecting stories left in the wake of this nickel.
This nickel really is a marvelous coin; quite a major variety/error on one of the most iconic, bold, and quintessential coins of the 20th century and beyond. And here’s the interesting part: the 3-legged buffalo can be viewed as an error and a variety. It’s an error in the sense that something when wrong in the press/dies that caused a defect in the coin. But it’s also a variety because multiple examples were consecutively produced with the exact same characteristics. The 3-legged buffalo nickel holds a special place in my collection, and I hope that it will in the collection of others for years to come.
1. Bowers, Q. David and Fivaz, Bill. (2017) A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels. Pelham, AL: Whitman Publishing. p. 121.
2. Hernandez, Jaime. “1937-D 3-Legged Buffalo Nickel Capturing Attention – PCGS.” PCGS, 2008, https://www.pcgs.com/News/1937-d-3-legged-Buffalo-NickelCapturing-Attention.
3. IQ, CoinWeek. “Counterfeit Coin Detection – 1937-D 3-Legged Buffalo Nickel.” CoinWeek, 22 Oct. 2020, https://coinweek.com/counterfeits/counterfeit-coindetection-1937-d-3-legged-buffalo-nickel/.
4. Garrett, J. (2021). Guide Book of United States Coins 2022. (Q. D. Bowers & K.Bressett, Eds.). Whitman Publishing.