One of the most unusual pennies produced by the United States Mint is the “1943 Silver Pennies” which are actually steel. Most people believe that all pennies ever produced by the United States Mint are made of copper. Therefore, when someone finds one of these silver pennies in their pocket change, they believe they have come across a great rarity. Although they are uncommon, they are hardly rare.
The War Effort And Metals
The 1943 silver-colored penny is a wartime coin issue made of steel and coated with zinc. During World War II, the war effort required a lot of copper to make shell casings and munitions. In 1943 the penny was made out of zinc-plated steel to save copper for the war effort which is why most 1943 pennies are silver colored. The pennies were produced in all three U.S. Mints: San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Denver.
Metal was not the only commodity that was critical to the war effort. American citizens were asked to conserve food such as sugar, meat, cooking oil, and canned goods. Critical goods were rationed to American citizens using coupon books issued by the government. Most critical of all was gasoline.
How Rare Is A 1943 Lincoln Steel Penny?
One of the most frequently asked questions that a numismatist gets is “How rare is my 1943 penny?” It is perfectly understandable since most pennies that people see are made out of copper. So when they find an old penny that is not made out of copper, they think they have something rare and valuable. Unfortunately, many people who were alive during the 1940s have now passed away.
Therefore, very few people remembered when these unique pennies circulated with the common copper cents. Additionally, there are some unscrupulous people that fake rare coins and will try to sell you a counterfeit 1943 copper penny. Therefore, before you invest any money in purchasing rare coins, make sure they are authenticated by a professional or deal with a trusted coin dealer.
The “Silver Penny” Is Not Rare
In 1943 the United States was preparing for war in Europe and the Pacific. Copper is an essential metal in the manufacturing of ammunition. In order to save copper for the war effort, the United States Mint under the authority of Congress began making pennies from steel with a thin coating of zinc called the Lincoln wheat penny. This gave the steel wheat penny a silver color instead of the normal orange/brown copper color.
Is the 1943 penny rare? The answer depends on the composition of the 1943 penny. If the penny has a silver color, it is made out of steel with a zinc coating to make it look nice and protect it from rusting. They are fairly common and in nice condition since people tended to save them when they were the first issue because they were unusual. A regular 1943 steel penny is worth only a few cents at heritage auctions.
As the 1943 steel pennies circulated, the zinc coating started to turn gray and almost black. If it was in circulation long enough, the zinc coating completely wore off, and the steel underneath would start to show through.
When exposed to moisture the penny would start to rust. To “revive” some of the original beauty, some unscrupulous coin dealer’s started to re-plate the steel pennies with a fresh coating of zinc. Although these pennies show a brilliant shine, they are considered damaged coins and carry little or no value.
The Rare 1943 Penny
If your 1943 penny is made out of copper, it is worth quite a bit of money, generally $10,000 or more! The reason is that the 1943 copper penny is an error coin. The United States Mint accidentally used the wrong kind of planchet metal when striking the coin. But very, very few of these left the U.S. Mint facilities.
These error coins were not intentional. Some copper planchets leftover from the previous year got stuck in the corners of the large bins that moved the blank planchets around the mint. When they became dislodged, they were mixed in with the regular zinc plated steel planchets and processed through the coining processes.
Unfortunately, there are plenty of fake 1943 copper cents floating around. Some were intended to be novelty items, and are just steel pennies dipped, or plated, in copper. Others are fraud attempts, where someone has taken a genuine 1948 copper penny and cut the 8 in half, making it look like a 3. Fortunately, there are very easy tests to determine if your 1943 copper penny is genuine.
What To Do If You Think You Have One
If you believe your 1943 Lincoln penny is the rare copper variety and most valuable, you need to have it authenticated by a professional. Ultimately, you need to send it to a third-party grading service to have it authenticated and encapsulated. Unfortunately, this can cost between thirty dollars and fifty dollars to have your coin authenticated.
Before you waste your money sending your coin to a third-party grading service only to have it come back as an altered or counterfeit coin, here’s a few things you should do.
Take your coin to a local coin dealer and have the dealer look at it to see if it has no mintmark. Most coin dealers who have been around for a while have seen enough counterfeit and altered coins to know the difference. They will be able to give an educated opinion before you invest the money in having it authenticated by a third-party grading service.
Take your coin to a local coin show and have several dealers look at it and give you their opinion. Do not let it out of your sight or let them take it in the “backroom” where you will lose sight of it. Unfortunately, some dishonest coin dealers will try to switch your authentic coin with an altered or counterfeit coin.
If a majority of the dealers think it is authentic, then you should invest the money and send it to a third-party grading service. If a majority of them think it is an altered or counterfeit coin, don’t waste your money having it certified and authenticated.
How Many 1943 Steel Pennies Are There?
In 1943, the U.S. Mint produced 648,628,000 steel pennies. Soon after they were produced, people began to notice problems with these steel pennies. If the zinc coating came off, the steel began to rust, especially along the edge of the coins. In later years, the U.S. Mint began to collect and destroy steel pennies, but many of these still exist today, making steel pennies quite common. The key is finding one in uncirculated condition. Uncirculated steel pennies are much rarer.
Identifying a 1943 steel penny is fairly easy. On one side, you’ll see Lincoln’s head and the date 1943, and on the other, you’ll see the wheat design used in older pennies. Besides the unique silver color, steel pennies have another identifying feature. They’re magnetic. Copper pennies are not magnetic; if you hold a magnet next to an ordinary copper penny, it won’t stick. However, if you hold a magnet next to a steel penny, it sticks as it does to a refrigerator.
Because they are quite common, a 1943 penny in the circulated condition isn't worth much. A steel penny from 1943 in the circulated condition is worth between 16 cents and 53 cents. However, 1943 steel pennies in pristine, uncirculated condition sell for more than $1,000.
Grading A 1943 Penny
Obviously, the condition has a huge effect on the 1943 penny values as collectibles. The Numismatic Guarantee Corporation offers these grading guidelines:
- Poor: Coin rims are flat or damaged and details are indistinct
- Fair: Some details are visible.
- Good: Details are visible but not perfect.
- Very good: All details are readable.
- Fine: Raised areas are sharp and distinct.
- Very fine: Coin is nearly perfect with just a little wear on the higher points of the design.
- Mint state: Coin is in the same state as it was struck.
The best way to determine how much your steel penny is worth it to have it appraised. However, it’s only worth appraising if you suspect it may be valuable. You can get an idea about the value by comparing sales of similar coins:
- A pristine, mint state 1943 steel penny sold on eBay for over $4,000.
- A 1943 steel penny in very fine, circulated condition sold for about $15.
- A rusty 1943 steel penny in poor condition sold for less than a dollar.
The History Of The Steel Penny
There are few 20th-century coins as popular with numismatists and non-numismatists alike as 1943 Lincoln Steel Cents, known as the wheat penny. Struck as an emergency measure to help save copper for ammunition shells to be used by Allied Forces during World War II, 1943 Steel Cents are a product of war-era rationing that affected a full range of materials during the period.
As an American who was alive at the time recalls, everything from heating oil and rubber tires to sugar and meat was scarce commodities that were needed to help support the millions of men and women fighting on the frontlines in Europe, Asia, and North Africa.
Even the common “penny” was subjected to these rations. However, such measures weren’t restricted to only the Lincoln Cent. The Jefferson Nickel was also affected, its nickel content redirected to wartime efforts and replaced with a temporary composition of 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese.
Other nations took similar actions with their coinage during World War II, which began in 1939 and saw American military involvement from 1941 until the end of the international conflict in 1945. While many coins of that period were made from special ration-based compositions, the 1943 Steel Cent is perhaps the most well-known of such coinage, and it remains popular with today’s collectors.
Despite the widely held misnomer by many non-collectors that 1943 Lincoln Steel Cents are rare and valuable, these coins were struck in huge numbers and are relatively inexpensive in all but the highest uncirculated grades. All told, the United States Mint struck nearly 1.1 billion zinc-coated steel cents in 1943.
That cumulative mintage figure, broken down by the three mints that struck 1943 Lincoln Steel Cent, reveals 684,628,670 were struck at the Philadelphia Mint while the branch mints of Denver and San Francisco produced 217,660,000 and 191,550,000, respectively.
The Steel Penny Can Be Found Today
Even with a particularly heavy attrition rate due mainly to the fact that steel cents had a tendency to rust into oblivion rather quickly after their zinc coating wore off, these 1943-dated pennies remain numerous today. Should even 10% of the original mintage remain for these coins, that means there are still more than 100 million total 1943 Lincoln Steel Cents around.
Assuredly, most exist in circulated conditions, though there are tens of thousands of uncirculated examples around for hobbyists who want pristine examples for their collections. While one can assemble a circulated set of the three regular-issue coins for a total of less than $5, those who want a nice set of 1943 Lincoln Steel Cents in MS65 can buy the trio for around $100.
Nicer examples in the better Gem grades are significantly more expensive, and collectors who wish to find top-pops for their PCGS Registry Sets will need to fork over a few grand apiece for specimens at or near the top of their class. The 1943 in MS68 lists at $2,250, the 1943-D in MS68 goes for around $2,150, and the 1943-S in MS68 trades for around $4,420.
Those who want an alternative to collecting the P-D-S trip of steel pennies will find many interesting varieties among 1943 Lincoln Cents, including the 1943 Doubled Die and 1943-D Repunched Mintmark. But the most notable 1943 Lincoln Cent varieties are the bronze example, theorized to have been struck as a result of leftover 1942 bronze planchets, perhaps lost in the press hoppers, getting fed through the system to be struck with 1943 dies eventually.
At present, a total of about two dozen bronze 1943 Lincoln Cents are known to exist representing the three mints, with about 8 to 12 each of Philadelphia and San Francisco origin and just one from Denver. Even circulated examples of these coveted rare coins regularly realize six figures, with the lone 1943-D Lincoln Cent, graded PCGS MS64BN, taking $1.7 million in 2010.
The Steel Cent Of 1943
As is the case with most major historic events, the effects of World War II had an impact on American numismatics. The United States Mint was obliged to use a different alloy for the one-cent “penny”. After experimenting with numerous substitutes - including even plastic - the government finally settled on a zinc-coated steel alloy as a replacement material.
The combination of steel and zinc proved to be highly problematic. For one, the grayish-tinted coins were frequently confused for dimes. Since they were light and magnetic, most vending machines failed to properly identify the coins as authentic one-cent pieces.
Furthermore, the zinc coating was chemically reactive and would rust quickly once exposed to moisture. After receiving vociferous complaints, the U.S. Mint eventually reverted back to the old copper alloy in 1944. The switch over to zinc (and the ensuing reversion back to copper) resulted in several fascinating off-metal errors.
The U.S. Mint erroneously used some leftover copper planchets (i.e. blanks) in 1943 and some remaining zinc planchets in 1944. These unintentional 1943 copper cents and 1944 zinc-coated steel cents are significant rarities that often fetch between $25,000 and $500,000 at auction. These error coins have received a tremendous amount of mainstream publicity - there is a good bit of confusion as to which 1943/1944 cents are legitimately valuable.
While quite unusual, 1943 steel-coated zinc cents do not actually have much numismatic value. In fact, they are worth just 10-50 cents in average condition and sell for less than $50 in Uncirculated. Many people accidentally confuse the 1943 zinc/steel cents for wildly rare 1943 copper or 1944 steel pennies. Furthermore, adding to the confusion, quite a few counterfeit 1943 copper / 1944 steel cents have appeared on the market.
By far, the simplest way to differentiate between real and fake versions is to use a magnet. Genuine zinc-coated steel cents are magnetic, while copper-plated fakes are not. There is also a minute weight difference (copper cents weigh 3.11 grams while the zinc version weighs just 2.7 grams). If a coin passes the magnet and weight tests, a close review of the coin’s strike and design features will reveal whether it’s authentic or not.
Final Word On The 1943 Steel Penny
While not terribly valuable, 1943 steel pennies do make for great historical mementos of World War II. They are very affordable and make for interesting conversation pieces. Near-perfect specimens, grading Ms67-MS68, can be found for $500-$2000 each. 1943 zinc-coated steel pennies offer collectors a tremendous amount of backstory and history for a small amount of money.