1937-D Buffalo Nickel, 3-Legged

The 1937-D Buffalo nickel with three legs is a coin even many non-collectors have heard about, making it one of the most famous issues in United States numismatics.(1)

The reverse die in question at first generated the image of a normal four-legged buffalo, but somewhere during the production run, the buffalo’s right foreleg disappeared. How did this happen? There are a couple of theories:

  • After heavy use, both obverse and reverse on a particular die pair were eroding, creating an undesirable roughness in the fields. Both dies were repolished to improve smoothness, but in the process, the leg was erased.(2)
  • An inexperienced Denver Mint felt pressure to get more nickels out, so he hastily repaired a Buffalo nickel reverse die marred by "clashing". (Clash mark damage occurs when the upper and lower dies accidentally come together in the striking action without a planchet in between). He removed the marks with an emery stick. In the rush, he also erased a large portion of the bison's foreleg.(3)

Whichever is correct, experts agree the die pair involved had aged far into its production life before an excessive polishing operation took place in an attempt to enhance the appearance of the coins struck.

We’ll never know if the problem of the missing leg escaped Quality Control or if it was disregarded because of the push to hit production quotas. Either way, it didn’t take long for the oddity to be discovered. One dealer, C.L. "Cowboy" Franzen began advertising examples for sale in The Numismatic Scrapbook before the end of 1937.(4)

It took some years for the 1937-D 3-legged nickel to catch on with collectors, but eventually it became an essential key to the popular Buffalo nickel series. No set could be considered complete without it.

Most price guides list this coin alongside all other Buffalo nickel dates. Many times, it is thought of as a variety, but this is technically incorrect. When the die was new, the leg was present and struck normal coins. It wasn’t until after the die had been in service for quite some time that the leg vanished. It is more precise to say the three-leg effect is the result of a “late die state” striking.(5)

With the good comes the bad. Over the years, dishonest people have capitalized on the fame of the 3-legged variety by carefully removing a portion of the leg from ordinary 1937-D nickels and passing them off as the rarity. Other than the 1916-D Mercury dime, this may be the most frequently faked issue in United States coinage.(6)

Because all genuine three-legged specimens were struck from the same pair of heavily worn dies, certain diagnostics unique to the pair make it easy for the trained eye to spot fakes.

For decades, the 1937-D 3-leg nickel has achieved notoriety among coin collectors. A long record of periodic price increases solidifies its status as one of the most legendary of all coins.

Take Note: Like so many Classic Rarities, the 1937-D 3-legged Buffalo nickel is characterized by cyclical price movements. The last peak occurred in 2008, but since then, prices have tailed off by about 50%. Statistically and historically speaking, it seems likely this coin will eventually grow a new leg and start running again!

Estimated survivors in all grades: 10,000
? The survivor estimate from PCGS represents an average of one or more experts' opinions as to how many examples survive of a particular coin in all grades. Survival estimates include coins that are raw, certified by PCGS, and certified by other grading services.
Learn more at PCGS.
PCGS Rarity Scale: 3.0
? The 'PCGS CoinFacts Rarity Scale' assesses the relative rarity of all U.S. coins, based on estimated surviving examples. The scale runs from 1.0 to 10.0. The higher the number, the rarer the coin.
Learn more at PCGS.
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1. Heritage Auctions.  1937-D 5C Three-Legged.  Apr 2016 Auction.

2. NGC.  1937 D 3 LEGS 5C MS.

3. Heritage Auctions.  1937-D 5C Three-Legged.  Mar 2005 Auction.

4. Stack's Bowers Galleries.  1937-D Buffalo Nickel. 3-Legged.  Jul 2015 Auction.

5. NGC.  1937 D 3 LEGS 5C MS.

6. Heritage Auctions.  1937-D 5C Three-Legged.  Aug 2007 Auction.

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Coin images by Stack's Bowers Galleries.