Introduction to Full Step Designation
What constitutes a Full Step Designation for a Jefferson Nickel? This seems to be a very common question among collectors. And most who ask want photographs of the difference between FS and non FS Jefferson Nickels. Hopefully this thread will answer all of your questions relating to the full step designation and I will provide examples for 6FS, 5FS, and non FS with clear photographs. All of the photographs in this thread were taken by myself and are of coins presently in my collection.
We should first start with a definition of the full step (FS) designation. I will refer to the PCGS OFFICIAL GUIDE TO COIN GRADING AND COUNTERFEIT DETECTION which defines it as:
Full steps (FS) is the designation following the numerical grade of some regular-strike MS60 or higher Jefferson nickels that have at least five separated steps (lines) at the base of Moniticello. Any major disturbance or interruption of these steps or lines, whether caused by contact, planchet problems, or another source, will result in the coin’s not being designated FS. Only the slightest weakness on any step (line) is allowed for this designation. Some issues are almost never seen with full steps and may command a significant premium.
PCGS does not go on to explain the difference between 6FS and 5FS, but essentially it relates to the number of fully separated lines seen on the coin. The 6FS designation will have 5 distinct lines and the 5FS designation will have 4 distinct lines. Any coin without at least 4 fully separated lines will not be awarded the full step designation.
It should also be noted that NGC did not award the FS designation to 5FS Jefferson’s until February 16th, 2004. Before that date, NGC only used the FS designation for coins that showed 6FS. After that date they used two different designations, one for 6FS and 5FS. A coin in an older NGC holder with the FS designation equals 6FS. To my knowledge, PCGS always considered 5 or 6 full steps FS.
Now that we have a general knowledge of what to look for, let us see some examples of full step and non-full step Jefferson Nickels.
6FS Jefferson Nickel
Above is an example of a solid six full steps (6FS) nickel. Notice that all 5 lines are complete without any breaks or significant weakness. Also note that the label of the coin does not make the distinction of 6FS and it only says FS. This tells us that the coin was graded prior to February 2004 and the certification number provides further evidence of that fact.
I posted this second coin for two reasons. First is to show the label of an NGC six full step nickel post February 2004. The other reason is to bring to attention a much more important issue regarding the full step Jefferson Nickels. Some collectors will blindly search for the elusive full steps. And although the grading companies have marketed the strike designation very well and the premium demanded by full step nickels for certain date/mm is astronomical, it is important to realize that full steps does not always indicate a well struck coin. It simply means that area of the coin that is most often incomplete is fully struck. Compare the photographs of these two nickels to see what I mean. The 1940 shows full intended detail on the reverse with all windows, doors, and pillars evident with only slight blending of the porch roof. The 1941-D on the other hand has incomplete windows, doors, pillars and significant blending of the roof. The point is that full steps does not equate to full strike 100% of the time. When collecting full step nickels, you should always seek out a coin with not only full steps, but also a full strike, especially for the date/mm that are common with full steps.
5FS Jefferson Nickel (Almost 6FS)
This 1958-D Jefferson was plucked directly from a double mint set and sent off to NGC for grading. And the submitter had good reason to be optimistic. After all, this coin had a legitimate chance at attaining an MS67 6FS grade. Certainly the two marks on Jefferson’s coat and the one in the left obverse field limited the numerical grade, but the what about the steps. Using the quarter step method which counts the steps under each pillar it becomes easier to find the reason for only five steps. Under the fourth pillar between the “E” and “L” in “MONTICELLO” there is a small bridge of the 5th and 6th steps yielding a 6-6-6-5 step coin. This tiny bridge is enough to disqualify the coin from receiving the 6FS designation. Often you will see coins like this hyped as 5FS and 99% 6FS. Unfortunately, there is no premium for being almost something.
5FS Jefferson Nickel
This is the type of Jefferson that when you purchase the coin that you must be certain it has full steps. The 1944-P has a total population of 763/0 in MS67 with only 15 of those graded by PCGS. The Numismedia wholesale value is currently $90 and the PCGS price guide is $600. However, in full steps, the total population drops to 19/0 with 8 graded by PCGS. Numismedia does not provide a price guide for full step Jefferson’s but the PCGS price guide jumps from $600 to $4,750. That means if your coin is improperly graded and is not full steps, you just made a $4,000 mistake.
It is worth mentioning the proportionality of full steps between the grading services. The populations for full step and non full step coins are kept separate. That means there are a total of 23 1944-P MS67 Jeffersons graded by PCGS but 759 graded by NGC. Of the 23 PCGS, 8 received the full step designation while only 11 of the 759 NGC examples are full step. PCGS gives the full step designation to 35% of the top pop coins while the NGC is only at 1.5%. These numbers should tell the Jefferson Nickel collector two very important facts. First PCGS is much more conservative with their numerical grading of the series which explains both the population and prices differences. Second, PCGS is much more lenient with the application of the full step designation. Therefore, every PCGS full step collector should always scrutinize the full step designation assigned by PCGS in order to avoid making a very expensive mistake.
The current example is a solid 5FS coin graded by NGC and by the quarter step method is a 6-6-5-6 step coin. The only bridge is under the third pillar on the 5th and 6th steps.
5FS Jefferson Nickel (Questionable)
This is one of the most incredibly toned Jefferson Nickels in existence. As such, the full step designation really does not affect the value of the coin due to the premium generated by the phenomenal patina. However, upon close inspection of this coin, it is questionable if the coin really deserves the 5FS designation. PCGS would grade this coin full steps 100% of the time. But NGC is fanatical about the qualifications for the designation. It is quite obvious that the 6th step is gone but if you look closely below the left side of the 3rd pillar, there is a very small bridge of the 3rd and 4th steps. In this instance the NGC graders felt that it was not enough to preclude the full step designation and as it stands is a 5-5-5-6 step coin.
Non FS Jefferson Nickel (Strong Strike)
On some date/mm it is nearly impossible or simply too expensive to obtain a full step high grade nickel. In these cases it is advisable to search out a non full step coin with an otherwise full strike. This 1939-D NGC MS67 demonstrates the point perfectly. If you can’t find a full step coin, this is what you should strive to obtain. A virtually flawless Jefferson with a razor sharp strike and incredible booming luster. While the steps are only 5-3-2-5, all of the hair detail on the obverse is present as well as the features of MONTICELLO including doors, windows, and pillars.
View more nickels at The Coinnection.