What Are Die Varieties?








Numbering Systems

Variety vs. Error

             Not every coin which exhibits features other than the norm can be classified as an error; a mistake, the product of a wrong action.  In the early history of our segment of the hobby, ignorance of the minting process abounded and the general usage of “error” seemed to cover the field.  It was difficult to imagine how any deviation from the norm could be considered anything other than the result of a wrong action.  As we developed a fuller knowledge of the minting process we began to discover that deliberateness was a factor, but one that could not always be determined with accuracy.  For example were the 1938 D/S nickels the result of an accident or were they made deliberately to meet a Denver die shortage by using left over San Francisco dies and thus avoiding the waste of precious resources?

             “Error” however, had become so entrenched in the hobby that even though Alan Herbert repeatedly made arguments for the use of a more universal term, “minting variety” it never gained more than a nod of acceptance.  By the time the hobby realized the inadequacy of the term, it had taken on a more technical meaning devoid of its pejorative connotation.  The hobby divided itself into those who collected variations from the norm which repeated exactly (i.e. RPMs, doubled dies) and those that did not so repeat (i.e. incomplete planchets, off-centers).  “Error” became the term describing the latter category and “variety” or “die variety” the term that described the former.

             An error is created while a variety is born.  In order to be classified as a variety, the deviation has to occur in the die making process.  A variety is born with the die and is thus a part of every coin produced by that die.  On the other hand the production of an error begins and ends spontaneously during the minting process.  Two off-centers may be similar but for all practical purposes each is unique.  A doubled die, however, can produce a million coins or more, all with the same doubled image.


A Further Word about Die Varieties

            There is a deficiency which remains in our definitions, in spite of Alan Herbert’s excellent work, The Official Price Guide to Mint Errors, 7th ed., New York: House of Collectibles, 2007.  The Die division of the PDS system has been divided into 2 areas (Die Varieties and Die Errors).  The Die Varieties category is restricted to a few special areas of interest (Design Changes, Mintmark Styles, Doubled Dies, Repunched Mintmarks, and for earlier coinage the Repunched Date and the Misplaced Date) which are known to be on the die from its initial use and are for the most part cataloged by die. Some researchers catalog Design Changes and Mintmark Styles as Varieties, but not Die Varieties, because they affect multiple dies for the year, but the majority of error-variety collectors place them into the Die Variety category. Everything else (such as die cracks, die chips, die breaks, cuds, etc.) gets lumped into the Die Errors category.  These are errors which for the most part occur after the die is put into use, are relatively common types, and are only occasionally cataloged by die.  Unfortunately we don't always know when a die error is first formed.  So even though some die damage errors are thought to have been on the die when it was first used (the WI “extra leaf” quarters for example), they are still considered Die Errors, because the Die Varieties category is restrictive and most die damage occurs after the die is placed into use. 

            Another anomaly which has sought entrance into the Die Variety category is the “wavy step” or “trail die.”  Current theory points to their creation during the release of the hub from the die in the new single squeeze hubbing process (though recent discoveries tend to indicate that the phenomenon occurred prior to the advent of the single squeeze process).  Some are calling them die varieties while others are calling them doubled dies.  I take my cue for defining the end of the single squeeze hubbing process from Herbert's definition for the end of the minting process.  Herbert states on page 40, “The minting process ends with the final impact of the die pair upon the coin.”  In other words, the second the hammer die starts to retract from the strike, the coin has been minted.  Anything after that is damage to the coin.  Thus, the second the hub begins to retract from the hubbing, the die has been made.  Anything after that is damage to the die.  Consequently I place the “trail die” into the Die Error category just as I would any other type of die damage.



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Copyright James Wiles, 2011

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