How to tell if a penny is steel? If you’ve ever wondered whether that penny in your pocket or tucked away in a jar is a plain old copper one or the more valuable steel variety, you’re not alone. With pennies being largely phased out of circulation, more and more people are checking their stashes to see if they have any of the special steel cents minted during World War II.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Check the date. If your penny is dated 1943-1945 and has a grayish appearance instead of the usual copper color, there’s a good chance it’s made of steel.
Identifying Key Features of Steel Pennies
Dates to Look For
Steel pennies were produced by the U.S. Mint in 1943 as a copper conservation measure during World War II. If your penny has a date of 1943 and no mint mark, it is likely a steel penny. About a billion steel wheat pennies were made that year.
Color and Luster Differences
While copper pennies have a distinctive bright copper color, steel pennies often have a dark gray or black appearance. They may also appear quite dull rather than lustrous. This is because the zinc coating applied to the steel has oxidized over the years, giving it a darker, more lackluster look.
A steel penny usually weighs around 2.7 grams, while a modern copper penny weighs about 3.11 grams. You can try weighing your 1943 penny on a precision scale to see if it matches the expected weight of a steel cent.
One of the best ways to determine if your 1943 penny is steel is to test it with a magnet. Since steel is a ferromagnetic metal, a steel penny will be noticeably attracted to a magnet. In comparison, traditional copper and zinc pennies are not magnetic at all.
Performing Diagnostic Tests
The Magnet Test
The magnet test is one of the quickest and easiest ways to determine if a penny is made of steel. Simply take a refrigerator magnet or any basic magnet and hold it close to the penny. If the magnet sticks, then the penny is steel because steel is ferromagnetic.
This means steel contains iron which is highly attracted to magnets.
Pre-1982 pennies were made primarily of copper which is not magnetic. So if your magnet doesn’t stick, it’s likely you have an old copper penny. According to coin experts at USMint.gov, this magnet sliding test catches over 90% of steel imposters often mistaken for copper pennies.
The Drop Test
Another simple diagnostic check is the drop test. Hold the penny about waist height and drop it onto a hard surface like a table or countertop. Listen carefully to the sound it makes.
Pre-1982 copper pennies will emit a high-pitched ‘ring’ when dropped due to the soft malleable copper material. On the other hand, zinc pennies sound more like a dull thud due to the harder zinc and copper mixture.
The Balance Scale Test
For a more scientific approach, use a precision balance scale calibrated to grams. First, weigh a known real copper penny and record its mass. Then weigh the suspect penny in question and compare masses.
A pre-1982 95% copper penny weighs around 3.11 grams. Zinc pennies introduced in the 80s weigh only 2.5 grams due to their thinner zinc coating. Heavier pennies ring more true! If needed, check online U.S. mint sources for exact specs during certain years.
Background on Steel Pennies
Why Steel Was Used
In 1943, the United States Mint began producing steel wheat pennies due to copper shortages caused by World War II. Copper was a critical war material needed for making artillery shells and other munitions. With more copper going towards the war effort, the government mandated steel replacements for all one-cent coins that year.
The steel pennies were minted for one year before switching back to the copper-plated version in 1944. In total, over 1 billion steel cents were created. This makes the 1943 steel wheat penny a unique and historical part of U.S. coinage.
Total Number Minted
- 1,093,838,670 steel pennies were minted in 1943 across all U.S. Mints
- The breakdown by mint is:
Philadelphia Mint 684,628,670 Denver Mint 217,660,000 San Francisco Mint 191,550,000
The large quantity produced makes most individual 1943 steel cents worth only face value. However, some rare errors and minting variances can raise their value considerably.
For most 1943 steel pennies in average circulated condition, they are worth around 3 to 5 cents apiece. But there are certain standouts:
- A 1943-S steel wheat penny graded MS63 by PCGS sold in July 2022 for $126
- A 1943 Lincoln cent struck on a copper planchet instead of a steel one went for over $82,500 in a Heritage Auctions sale in 2015
- Counterfeit copies are unfortunately common, so authentication is important in assessing true value
For coin collectors interested in these historical rarities, a complete set registry of all 1943 Mint Mark variants can now sell for over $2,000 at auction when certified in choice condition.
As America’s most common 20th-century rarity, 1943 steel pennies carry intrigue and nostalgia from a pivotal period. Learn more about these coins and their backstory at the PCGS CoinFacts site.
Authentication and Grading Considerations
When attempting to determine if a penny is made of steel rather than copper, it’s important to consider having it professionally authenticated and graded. This can provide definitive proof of a coin’s composition and condition.
Professional Grading Services
Leading professional grading services like PCGS and NGC use scientific testing and expert analysis to assess a coin’s authenticity and grade its condition on a standardized scale. For pennies, they can determine if the composition is copper or steel through tests like specific gravity measurements, electromagnetic signatures, and metallurgical analysis.
The stringent certification process checks for alterations and provides a permanent record of the coin’s properties encapsulated in a tamper-proof slab with unique certification numbers. Fees range from about $20-$50 per coin to grade circulated pennies.
Distinguishing Altered Coins
Unfortunately, some counterfeit or altered coins attempt to mimic valuable steel pennies. Professionals use multiple authentication checks to detect fakes, like comparing tiny details to confirmed genuine examples.
Advanced analytical tests at grading services can also identify if the metal composition has been modified from the original specifications.
Signs of alteration to watch for include mismatching dates and mint marks, suspicious wear patterns, residual glue, unusual surfaces, and incorrect weights. Reporting suspected fakes helps keep the hobby secure.
Storage and Handling Best Practices
Following proper storage and handling procedures preserves a coin’s condition so future grading remains consistent. Pennies are susceptible to developing fingerprint residue, scratches, spots, and other damage from improper cleaning or exposure to air and moisture over time.
- Handle coins by the edges to avoid touching the surfaces.
- Use lint-free gloves when necessary while grading.
- Store in folders, albums, cases, or archival plastic holders made from chemically inert materials.
- Never clean valuable coins as this can permanently damage them.
|Poor Storage Example
|Good Storage Example
|Loose in a bag or jewelry box where they rub against each other.
|In individual cardboard holders or plastic capsules to protect each surface.
Understanding certification, spotting problematic alterations, and properly caring for your pennies ensures authentic examples retain their original steel integrity over time.
How To Tell If A Penny Is Steel – Conclusion
As you can see, while steel pennies may resemble normal copper cents at first glance, a trained eye can spot the telltale differences upon closer inspection. A combination of visual cues, weighing, magnetism tests, and knowledge of mint years for the World War II steel cent program will help you successfully identify these unique coins.
Steel cents make up an intriguing part of U.S. numismatic history. Whether you find one mixed in with more recent pennies or discover a full roll that has been sitting untouched for decades, identifying the steel composition adds an extra layer of excitement to the humble penny.