BY JOSHUA MCMORROW-HERNANDEZ, EDITOR

Jefferson nickels have slipped under the radars of coin dealers and collectors for years, with many proclaiming the current five-cent coin series a “sleeper.” It’s one of the few current, long-running series of which a complete collection remains possible to build from circulation with enough patience.

This, thanks to many of the semi-keys and even the various 35% silver wartime issues (struck from 1942-45) occasionally floating around from pocket to pocket, purse to purse, or roll to roll with little notice from non collectors and relatively scant attention from even many collectors who mistakenly think there’s little of value worth saving from the series. Perhaps even fewer numismatists still realize that it’s virtually impossible to find some dates in MS66 or higher with all five or six steps intact at the base of Monticello on the reverse.

The Jefferson nickel is by no means a challenging series for typical collectors hoping to fill coin folders or coin albums with circulated examples or run-of-the-mill uncirculated specimens. However, diehard registry set enthusiasts hoping to complete a collection of certified Jefferson nickels in the highest grades have a much more trying-and expensive-objective on their hands. For many issues, there simply are few-and often-no survivors with Full Steps details above MS66 or MS67. Even some non-FS Jeffersons are unknown in grades as “low” as MS67.

WHY ARE FULL-STEPS JEFFERSON NICKELS SCARCE?

What is it about Full Steps Jefferson nickels that make these coins so difficult to find? Bill Fivaz, who contributed to A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels (Whitman Publishing, 2007), says high-grade Jefferson nickels are elusive for many reasons.

“First, the hardness of the 75%-25% copper-nickel composition does not lend itself well to quality strikes,” explains Fivaz. “Also, in many cases the dies were used well past their effectiveness, resulting in ‘mushy’ and clouded features of the design(s) and an ‘orange peel’ look in the fields, which is a characteristic of coins struck by eroded dies.” Thus, “collectors should be aware that many, if not most, of the dates from 1938 through 1970 are very difficult to locate with ‘Full Steps.’”

DEFINING “FULL STEPS”

What exactly are “Full Steps”? “The original design of Monticello on the reverse of the Jefferson nickel had six steps, with the Variety 1 (1938 and some 1939 issues) being characterized as having ‘wavy’ or rather ill-defined steps,” Fivaz notes. “Mintages after this have well-defined, straight and easy-to-count steps. It is important to understand that the count starts with the top (porch) step, and proceeds downward to the bottom one.” He says some Jefferson specialists establish step counts by counting the incuse lines between each step, with four unbroken lines equating a five-step coin whereas five undisturbed lines make a six-step specimen.

“A coin is generally considered to qualify for the Full Steps designation if it has five complete steps with no nicks, cuts, abrasions, or weakness to interrupt the step count,” Fivaz explains. “Because the definition of the steps in this series is a function of the q