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Fly-In Club's President's Letter
by Chris Pilliod

42nd President's Letter by Chris Pilliod

This is my 42nd letter as president and it continues to be a fascinating journey working with the Mint on its new Coinage Act. There have been hours and hours and more hours of discussion with them, with over six screen pages of emails (not including the ones I have deep-sixed or haven't read yet). One of the areas that will surprise you most is, during all the pertinent discussions being undertaken, how often large sidebars commence, seemingly right around every corner. They are omnipresent, to come up with a fancy term. One minute we might be discussing why one alloy may not blank or upset so well (what a vending machine needs for a coin to function) and then all of a sudden we commence a discussion of how die life may be affected - negatively or perhaps be improved for this or that reason. It dawns on you how a seemingly simple task such as changing coining alloy becomes monumentally complicated. Just a few days ago the Mint called and confided about some trials they desire to embark upon with some experimental die steels and die steel processing. We talked for almost an hour and all the while I kept thinking back to die making during the Indian Cent series, and how far the technology has come in the last 100 years. During the course of the conversation I asked, as it relates to the Mint, where in the pecking order of importance does die life rest? Very important. Is it the main topic of meetings? Not every meeting, but it is a hot topic. Or does it not matter? It does matter. Is die life predictable? No. I guess some things don't change… die life has been a major concern for the Mint in its entire history. Today's die life for the cent is NOT all that much better than during the coinage of the Indian cents. What has changed, however, is the standard deviation of die life. Standard deviation is the measure of variation in die life. While the die life for production strikes of 1877 Indians was very long - several hundreds of thousands - without question, there were many dies during this series that lasted only a few thousand strikes, and likely some only made it a few hundred strikes. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some dies lasted literally a few dozen strikes before they had to be retired. In today's world, at the Mint average die life for the cent may be 400,000 strikes per die but most dies make it to 200,000 before being retired.
Keep in mind the main reason for retiring a die is the exact same reason then as it is today... either premature wear, or metal fatigue, or die cracks or cuds. At the Mint, a cud is known as a "piece-out." The only thing that has changed since 1909 are the standards, with today's rejection criteria being far more stringent than in the Indian cent days. Rejection today occurs for
a minor, almost microscopic die crack that would have undoubtedly gone unnoticed back in the 1800's. Unlike many metallurgical properties, such as strength, hardness, or ductility, fatigue is the one attribute of a metal part that is at best a guessing game for metallurgists. One die might last 1 million strikes, and the next 100 strikes before it fatigues and forms a die crack or even a full cud.

This is why some dies are very common and others are extraordinarily rare. For example, have a look at the 1869 Snow- 1 variety. This is a great repunched date variety which is rarely encountered. In fact, compared to its more popular and much higher demand Snow-3 ounterpart, it is easily ten times as rare.Why? For me, the answer came in 1992 at the Michigan State Numismatic Convention in Dearborn. There I ran into fellow Fly-In member and variety specialist Dave Brody from Elkhart, Indiana. Dave has long been an ardent student of numismatic varieties, specializing in Shield nickels and Indian cents. He calmly walked up to me in an aisle and showed me a high-grade 1869/18 Snow-1. It was a choice XF+ with great original brown surfaces but had been holed and crudely plugged at 12 o'clock. Nonetheless, as soon as I examined it I asked for a price and got out my checkbook right away. This particular example had a very pronounced die break along the bottom of the date, as can be readily observed in the photos showing the die progression of this variety. Undoubtedly what transpired with the commencement of this die was premature fatigue cracking near the date. And it progressed quickly to a complete fracture. Being the obverse die, it was positioned in the hammer location and soon after this particular coin was struck, it created a "piece-out" or cud. And as soon as it was discovered by the press operator or inspector, the die was retired forever, well before the average lifespan of an Indian cent die. But before this took place, without question, this die struck some 1869 Snow-1 varieties with a full cud in that location. Now, whether the Mint inspector back in 1869 rounded them all up or some slipped through, we may never know. I, for one, in decades of searching have not discovered this variety with a full cud, but trust me, I would love to. As it relates to the Indian Cent series, the keys to die life greatly depend on the below input parameters.
1. The quality of the die steel, or its metallurgical properties.
2. The processing or method of manufacture of the die itself.
3. The inherent properties of the blanks or planchets. Planchet properties include how hard the metal blanks are, how well the metal flows during the striking, and so on. Obviously, the early use of copper-nickel greatly deteriorated die life as compared to the bronze issues that followed. One curious discovery I made during this journey with the Mint is that, for the Shield nickels as well as the coppernickel coinage and perhaps even the Indian Cents, it appears the coin planchets were not annealed prior to striking, which is very surprising and most likely the leading determinant for poor die life. 4. The design of the coin. For the Indian cent series, this is a constant, since from 1860 through 1909, only the slightest changes in design occurred. For example, even during the recent State quarter series, each state's selected design had an impact on die life.

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