With the United States getting directly involved in World War II during 1941, there was an immediate need to ration materials that were required for a successful effort in the war. One of the many essential materials that were needed during the early 1940s for the war was nickel, which was required for making artillery. Consequently, the U.S. government decided that nickel should be removed from the five-cent coin and saved for manufacturing nickel-steel armor for tanks, warships, and other vital war implements.
While 1942 began with the United States minting five-cent coins with the typical 25% nickel, 75% copper composition, a change was made late in the year to help ration nickel. This resulted in a new metal mixture, often referred to as the “wartime nickel” alloy. It is 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese.
There were around 90 million silver 1942 Jefferson five-cent coins made, including:
1942-P, 57,873,000 minted; $3
1942-P proof, 27,600; $300
1942-S, 32,900,000; $3
*Values are for coins in Very Fine-20 grade, unless otherwise noted.
It’s easy to tell a “wartime” nickel from a regular one, because the 35% silver nickels have a large “P,” “D,” or “S” mintmark over the dome of Monticello on the reverse. In fact, the 1942 Jefferson nickel minted in Philadelphia was the first United States coin to ever bear a “P” mintmark.
Incidentally, 1942 was the last year that proof coins would be made in the United States until 1950, with minting efforts focused on making business-strike coins and producing medals for returning soldiers.