The Three-Legged Buffalo and how to Authenticate

If you collect Buffalo Nickels, then you are aware of the 1937 D three-legged variety.  It is one of the most sought after coins in the series.  To obtain one you could expect to spend from $400 for a coin in good condition to $1500 for a coin in almost uncirculated condition.   Uncirculated specimens start in the $2100 range and go up from there.

The three-legged nickels were created when a mint employee tried to repair some heavily clashed dies.  A clashed die occurs when the dies strike against each other without a coin planchet between them.  This caused the design from each die to be struck into the other.  The mint employee tried to fix the dies by polishing out the clashed areas on the die.  In doing so he mistakenly polished out part of the back-front leg just above the hoof.  The dies were then put back into production and began striking coins.  The dies were pulled out of production once the mint discovered the mistake but by then a relatively small number of three legged nickels had been put into circulation.

Because of the high premium and the relative ease to alter a normal 1937 D nickel to make it look like the costlier variety, you should take great care if you buy an uncertified specimen.  They may be cheaper than a certified one but you run the risk of buying an altered coin that is worthless.  However, if you know what to look for you can be confident in purchasing an authentic specimen.

For instance, look at the photo below.  Can you tell me which of the nickels in not a three-legged variety?

Trick question, right?  How can you tell if you if you cannot see the back of the coin? If you know the markers for the three-legged variety you would know that coin number 2 is not a three-legged variety.

The next photo shows the markers for the three-legged nickel. 

For the obverse, the neck and forehead will have a ragged, pitted look to them in the areas indicated by the arrows.  On the Reverse, if the “P” or “U” in the motto touch the back of the buffalo the coin has been altered.  Also, the back-rear leg will also have a ragged, weak look to it.  Finally, there will be a series of raised spots between the buffalo’s leg that makes it look like it is, well doing what any well hydrated buffalo will do.  This last marker will be worn off on well circulated specimens.  Also, If the “P” and “U” do not touch the back, it does not mean prove that it is an authentic specimen as the dies that struck the three-legged variety also struck many four-legged specimens before the mint employee began working on them.  The raggedness on the leg, neck, and forehead will need to be there on an authentic three-legged coin.

Now time for a pop quiz.  Is the coin below real or altered?


If you think it is real, then I would suggest you stick with getting a certified specimen! 

I hope you enjoyed this article!

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  1. Thanks for the info David. I have always wanted a 3 leg and this will help me out in the future for sure. Will make sure the Buffalo appears to be well hydrated before I buy lol!!

  2. When I got mine there were no certification services so I had to learn how to tell a real one from a fake. Learning the markers is still beneficial since you may find a raw one and be able to get it cheaper than a certified one.

  3. Good article. I actually bought one years ago and it turned out to be a fake. Luckily it was priced dirt cheap and I should of known but still wasted my $100+ dollars. Could of used this info back then!

  4. Very good tips on the 3 Legger. I would not buy one that is not certified as even some of the authentication markers can be deceiving since even those can be altered to look the part. A 1937-D non 3-legs are a dime a dozen so it is very easy to duplicate a 3 legger

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