Strike or Wear?
One of the most difficult nuances in grading high-grade coins is detecting the difference in a weak strike, and light wear. Often to the untrained eye they appear quite similar – a lack of detail in the high points of the coin. However the difference in the grade is substantial for the coin can either be circulated or mint state. (Weakly struck uncirculated coins seldom grade above MS64.)
What causes weakly struck coins? The most frequent cause is a worn die. As a die is used, the sharp details are slowly flattened, so that by the end of the die's life, the fine details are often gone. Other reasons for poor strikes are inadequate striking pressure in the coining press, and on earlier coins, irregularities in the planchets or blanks can contribute to irregular or weakly struck coins. The spacing of the dies is also important – too far apart will cause a weak strike, but longer die life. Too close will create a sharp strike, but will shorten die life.
The type of metal comes into play as well. Nickel is very hard, and most of the strike issues during the 20th century come from nickel coins. Copper and silver are softer, and normally do not show as many chronic issues, although some silver coins such as Standing Liberty Quarters, Walking Liberty Halves and Franklin Halves can show some weakness. Gold is quite soft, and generally does not suffer from striking issues.
So how can one learn to distinguish a weakly struck coin from a coin with light wear? Let's begin by having a look at the reverse of a 1926-D Nickel – a notoriously weakly struck coin. Below are shown two examples – one that is fully struck, another that is very weakly struck.
So as the illustration above shows, the amount of detail struck into an uncirculated coin can very widely. But notice even on the weakly struck coin, the luster and color are even over the whole coin. There are no "flat" spots, but the areas missing detail are still rounded and lustrous.
Now have a look at the two 1925-S nickels below. The amount of detail shown is similar. Neither show the tip of the horn, the fur on the upper part of the buffalo is flat, the tip of the tail is not visible and the fur on the head is missing. However one coin is a mid-grade uncirculated piece – while the other is well circulated!
Note the differences: the coin on the left shows uniform luster over the whole coin, even in the areas missing detail. No flatness is evident, even though detail is not visible. The coin on the right has a lighter color on the flat areas, with very tiny scratches visible under magnification.
Next time, we'll look at another coin that has issues with strike – the Walking Liberty Half.