Before beginning to collect coins, it is important to know the basic terminology of the parts of a coin. These terms and more can be found in our Glossary of Common Numismatic Terms.

Parts of a Coin

Anatomy of a Coin
The third side of a coin. It may be reeded, ornamented, or plain
The flat portion of a coin where there is no design
Mint Mark
Letter(s) stamped into a coin to denote the mint at which it was struck
An inscription on a coin
The "heads" side of a coin
The portion of a coin’s design that is raised above the surface
The "tails" side of a coin
The raised area around the edges of the obverse and reverse of a coin

Mint Marks

A mint mark is a letter(s) stamped into a coin to denote the mint at which it was struck. There are four current U.S. Mints: Philadephia (P), Denver (D), San Francisco (S), and West Point (W). Other mints that existed were New Orleans (O), Carson City (CC), Dahlonega (D), and Charlotte (C). Dahlonega and Charlotte were only implemented to mint gold coins from the local gold deposits.

The mint in Philadelphia was the only one that existed in the United States until 1838. Until that time, mint marks were not needed. With the opening of the New Orleans, Dahlonega, and Charlotte mints, mint marks began being put on coins. However, coins struck at Philadelphia did not have a mint mark until 1942, on the Jefferson nickel. However, after the war the "P" was removed from the nickel and did not reappear until it was put on the 1979 Susan B. Anthony dollar. From then on, the "P" mint mark has been used on all denominations besides the cent. 

Finishes of a Coin

Coins can be produced with differing finishes. These finishes are created using various striking methods. The page will cover the differences between brilliant uncirculated, proof, and burnished finishes.

Brilliant Uncirculated Coin

Brilliant Uncirculated (BU)

Brilliant uncirculated is the most common of all the finishes. This is because coins with this finish are usually being made for circulation. Remember, this term defines the finish, not the condition of the coin. Therefore, a coin with more wear from circulation will no longer be defined as brilliant uncirculated. 


Proof and Reverse Proof Coins

Proof and Reverse Proof (PR and REV PR)

A proof coin is usually made for collectors and investors. These coins are struck on a special polished die. Because of this die, the field of the coin will have a mirror-like finish while the design will have a frosted appearance. To enhance the finish, proof coins are usually struck multiple times.

A reverse proof coin is just the opposite of a proof coin in appearance. These coins will have a frosted field and a mirror-like design. With limited mintage, reverse proof coins are more rare to find than their proof counterpart.

An important note is that even if a proof coin finds its way into circulation, it will still be defined as a proof coin despite condition.


Burnished Coin


Burnished coins will have a matte satiny appearance. To achieve this look, the planchet or blank is polished before the coin is struck. These coins are identified by displaying the West Pont (W) mint mark, unlike traditional bullion coins that do not have a mint mark at all.



Hopefully this information helps to make starting a coin collection easier. To understand more about beginning a collection, read our Introduction to Coin Collecting.