Anatomy of a Coin  

General Definitions: Three Sides to a Coin

Coins were struck with an obverse (front side) die, a reverse (back side) die, and have an edge imparted by a collar. The edges can have reeding (mostly post 1836) or no reeding at all (prior to 1836). The raised portion around the coin's periphery is called the rim (mostly on coins post 1836). Extending from the rim are a series of teeth-like projections called denticles. Coins will have a raised design called the devices, and flat-like areas called the fields which can have a mirror-like surfaces called proof-like (PL) or are more typically non-mirrored surfaces.


While most coin designs will show raised devices in the design, the gold $2.50 and $5 Indian designs will show incuse devices (the details are imparted into the coin). This was an experimental design at the time and is normal for only these types of coins. Proof coins are specially struck for collectors and many display a cameo-like appearance. These have been carefully prepared with highly polished mirror-like reflecting planchets (coin blanks) struck under greater pressure to bring up the design better, with specifically designed square rims. They are usually packaged in a manner by the U.S. Mint to facilitate preservation (original U.S. Mint packaging).

First Observations

The first things you see when you look at a coin are its size, shape, metallic composition, and design which typically includes a denomination (ie. 1/2c, 1c, 2c, 3c, ½ Dime, 5c, 10c, 20c, 25c, 50c, $1 Silver, $1 Gold, $2.5, $3, $5, $10, $20, $50, $100).


For U.S. silver coins, the larger the size, the larger the denomination. Thus silver or clad dollars will typically be the largest in diameter, followed by half dollars, quarter dollars, twenty cent pieces, nickels, dimes, three cent pieces, half dimes and pennies. Large cents will generally be slightly larger than quarters, and half cents will be slightly larger than nickels. When in doubt about the denomination of your coin, take a guess than compare it to the many pictures that we provide for each denomination.


For U.S. gold coins, the larger the size the larger the denomination. Thus $20 gold pieces are about the size of a silver dollar. $10 gold pieces are about the size of a quarter to half dollar. $5 and $3 gold pieces are about the size of a nickel. $2.5 gold pieces are about the size of a dime. $1 gold pieces are the smallest size, about ½ the size of a dime. For U.S. modern gold pieces (1986 to date), the $50 is a little smaller than a silver dollar. The $25 is a little larger than a quarter. The $10 gold piece is about the size of a dime. For U.S. platinum bullion coins, the larger the size the larger the denomination. The $100 platinum coins will be smaller than a silver dollar. The $50 is a little smaller than a half dollar. The $25 coin is about the size of a quarter, the $10 coin is about the size of a dime.


For the most part U.S. coins are circular in shape. More modern U.S. coins were struck with a collar which makes them more perfectly round and uniform in size. Older coins, prior to 1836, may have been struck without a collar, making them slightly larger and more spread out. Regular issue U.S. coins were not struck with holes. However there are some rarer U.S. pattern coins that were struck with uniform holes.

Metallic Composition

Coins may be easily classified as copper color looking, which varies from reddish color when first minted, to red-brown and then brown in color as the red color is reduced by chemical reduction, to silver, and gold in color. Silver coins, mostly those minted prior to 1964 will not have a copper clad layer on the edge, whereas copper-clad coins, those minted after 1964 will show a copper and nickel look at the reeding. All nickel coins and some 3 cent pieces are made of nickel which is not considered a precious metal.

Gold coins will have the look and heavy feel of gold, whereas some modern dollars which are not made of gold will also have a gold color look. The word gold is usually imprinted on the coin. The more modern clad dollars with the image of the native American indian female Sacagawea and child were first made in the year 2000, and continued with the Presidential dollar series from 2007 until today. These do not have any gold content.

Platinum coins will have the look and feel of heavy platinum. The word platinum is usually imprinted on the coin


The obverse and reverse design of a coin and denomination are specific for each date series. Thus, for example silver dollar designs from 1794-1795 included a lady with flowing hair on the obverse. The design was changed to a draped bust of Lady Liberty from 1795-1804. The Gobrecht Dollars of 1836-1839 had a seated Liberty design on the obverse and a flying eagle design on the reverse, which is slightly different than the seated Liberty design on the obverse of coins minted from 1840-1873, but vastly different from the eagle design depicted on coins of the Gobrecht era. Trade dollars from 1873-1885 had yet a different seated Liberty design than coins minted earlier. Morgan Dollars from 1878-1921, which are more common, popular and familiar to most display a large head of Ms. Liberty. The Peace dollar design of silver dollars minted from 1921-1935 show yet a different head of Ms. Liberty with rays extending from her tiara. The word “PEACE” can be seen in raised letters on the lower reverse of the coin. The next dollar design from 1971-1978 depicted former President Eisenhower on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. A different reverse was used for coins minted in 1976, the U.S. Bicentennial (date depicted as 1776-1975). It showed a moon superimposed over a liberty bell. The design of the dollar was reduced to about quarter size for the Susan B. Anthony  1979-1999, and changed in color to a golden-looking dollar for the Sacagawea design (from 2000-date). A golden appearance was retained in the Presidential dollar series (2007-date). In rare instances, two different designs were struck in a single year, when one design was being transitioned to another. We have tried to provide you with obverse and reverse photo examples of different designs for each of the different denominations during those years when there was more than one design made. All you need to do is match up your coin to the right design and date.


Coins were struck at different mints during their production. These are signified by small letters placed on coins in designated places. If there is no mint mark on a coin (prior to 1982) or your coin has a “P” mint mark, it was struck in Philadelphia. Coins with a “D” mint mark were struck in Denver. Coins with an “S” mint mark were struck in San Francisco. Coins with an “O” mint mark were struck in New Orleans. Coins prior to 1893 may have a “CC” mint mark which means they were minted in Carson City. For earlier dated gold coins from 1861 or prior, those with a “C” mint mark were minted in Charlotte. Gold coins from this same period with a “D” mint mark were minted in Dahlonaga.

Varieties and Errors

Because the minting process was not perfect, coins looking other than normal may be classified as varieties or error coins. Varieties are coins struck from either obverse or reverse dies or both that are different than normal. These may include repunched dates, repunched mint marks, overdates, and struck over mint marks, doubled dies, die clashed coins, die states, doubled reeding and more. This area of collecting is beyond the scope of this web site and requires specialized numismatic knowledge and education.


Error coins are simply mistakes in the manufacturing of coins by the U.S. Mint. These can include mistakes made in manufacturing the planchets, mistakes in the die-making process, or errors in the making of the coins. Some examples of error coins may include damaged or defective planchets, clipped planchets, wrong stock planchets, die adjustment strikes, brockages, double or multiple strikes, off center strikes, and many more beyond the scope of this reference.

U.S. vs Foreign Coins

In general, coins from the U.S. will have words spelled in English, whereas world coins may have words or characters spelled in a foreign language. Although we have extensive experience with foreign coins, we have not yet developed a site to deal with the thousands of designs, denominations, dates, mint marks, values, and condition of foreign coins. We would be happy to try to help you. Just contact us at with a description of your coin(s) or collection.

Ancient Coins, Tokens, Medals, Exonumia (coin-related items) and Stamps

Although we have experience and extensive contacts with other experts in ancient coins, tokens, medals, exonumia (coin-related items) and stamps, we have not yet developed a site to deal with the thousands of designs, dates, values, and condition of these items. We would be happy to try to help you. Just contact us at with a description of your item(s) or collection.


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