Attribution 101

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VAM Attribution 101 - Introduction to Morgan VAMs

VAM Education for Beginners (VEFB) Archive

By coming to this web site, you've already taken the first step in what can be a very addictive hobby. Collecting die varieties, also known as VAMs, is a popular addition to Morgan and Peace dollar enthusiasts. This page is not intended to be an introduction to the minting process or VAM definitions. For more information on the definition of a VAM, go here. For more information on the minting process, please read Chapter 3 in the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars by Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis.

As a side note, the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars, written by Mr.Leroy Van Allen and Mr. A. George Mallis is something that everyone in the hobby should strongly consider purchasing. It provides information about the industry and VAMs that is unrivaled anywhere else and is an invaluable resource.

Since you're here, you may be what? What do I do? How do I read all of these pages? How do I know if I have something worth noting or just noise that looks cool? It is the intent of this page to act as a living document to provide these answers and hopefully more. That way you can begin to identify VAMs in your own collection, grow your knowledge, and pass along things that you have learned.

The following topics will be covered in this introduction to Morgan VAMs:

Finally, there are is an alphabetic glossary defining most, if not all, of the terms you will run across.

Knowing Your Way Around the Morgan Dollar

Before we get started with this introduction, there are several areas of the Morgan dollar that you should be familiar with. The areas identified are the most common areas that you will refer to on this site when researching VAMs or providing information for individuals who are trying to help you attribute something. The areas listed are not the only areas of interest, just the most commonly used.
Obverse areas of interest:
Reverse areas of interest:
One thing to note about the reverse areas of interest is way that the eagle's wings are described. The eagle's wings are generally referred to from the view point of the eagle. For example, "eagle's right wing" is actually viewed as the left wing by the VAMmer. This means that the eagle's wings will be reversed from the wreaths when discussed. If you do not desire to refer to them in this fashion, be sure to state "as viewed". Meaning "eagle's left wing as viewed" would actually refer to the left wing as viewed on the reverse.

Understanding Major Hub Types

I know, you don't care about the major hub types. You just want to know what VAMs you have and how you can identify all of them. The fact of the matter is that one of the more widely misunderstood topics for beginners in VAMs is the major hub types and hub sub-varieties. Being able to understand and identify the varieties will go a long way in helping you comprehend the individual VAM pages and will help you attribute coins more quickly.
Simply put, there are 4 major obverse hub types and 4 major reverse hub types for Morgan dollars. Peace dollars have a separate set of hub types and they will be covered separately. The following table lists the major hub type designs, referenced in Chapter 6 of the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars:

Obverse Hub Type Obverse Sub-Variety Reverse Hub Type Reverse Sub-Variety
I I1 A A1
I2 A2/A1
D D1

According to Leroy Van Allen, the sub-varieties are listed because the changes made to the major hub designs were used to produce many working dies. There are some hybrid dies that use more than one hub design. For example, a hybrid design of B/A means that the B hub variety was impressed on top of the A hub variety. This is how some classes of VAMs were created, such as the 7/8 TF varieties. Obverse hub types use Roman numerals and reverse hub types use capital letters. Superscripts after Roman numerals or capital letters indicate minor design type. Subsequent numbers after the minor design type equal the individual die varieties.
So what does all of this mean? Each major hub design or minor design type has key characteristics that distinguishes it from any of the other hub designs. The basic obverse design differences are listed in the following table:

Hub Type ID Description
Obverse I Thin letters in LIBERTY, evenly divided rear portion of ear.
Obverse I1 Incused designer's initial, as on 1879-1921 coins.
Obverse I2 Raised designer's initial M with two parallel vertical bars.
Obverse II/I Short or very thin ear fill, evenly divided rear portion of ear, thicker letters in LIBERTY, some portion of the lettering or stars doubled.
Obverse II Thicker letters in LIBERTY, unevenly divided rear portion of ear, lines in wheat leaves.
Obverse III Thin letters in LIBERTY, unevenly divided rear portion of ear, lines in wheat leaves.
Obverse III1 Lines in all wheat leaves, wheat leaf end well below bottom of R in PLURIBUS. Long wheat leaf between wheat stalks.
Obverse III2 Long wheat leaf below R, close to bottom of R, with weak lines. Short wheat leaf between wheat stalks.
Obverse IV Eyelash missing, hairlines more pronounced, LIBERTY letters different.

The basic reverse design differences are listed in the following table:

Hub Type ID Description
Reverse A Eight tail feathers.
Reverse A1 Raised eagle's beak.
Reverse A2/A1 Hooked eagle's beak with lower beak and tongue usually doubled. Top arrow head and shaft doubled.
Reverse B/A Long center arrow shaft, parallel arrow feathers, seven tail feathers with portions of eight tail feathers usually showing below seven tail feathers, portions of A die design around branch leaves, wreath and bow, or IN GOD WE TRUST.
Reverse B Seven tail feathers, parallel arrow feathers, flat eagle's breast.
Reverse B1 Long center arrow shaft.
Reverse B2 Short center arrow shaft.
Reverse C Seven tail feathers, slanted arrow feathers, round eagle's breast.
Reverse C1 A in AMERICA very close to eagle's wing, bottom feather of eagle's right wing next to leg is rounded and not connected to wing on left.
Reverse C2 A in AMERICA very close to eagle's wing, bottom feather of eagle's right wing extends to junction of next two feathers, thin line present between eagle's leg and first feather.
Reverse C3 Left serif of A in AMERICA cut down so it is further from wing, bottom feather of eagle's right wing squared off and raised.
Reverse C4/C3 Two olives connected above olive branch with upper one shallow.
Reverse C4 Larger U-shaped space between eagle's left wing edge and eagle's neck.
Reverse D Parallel arrow feathers, flat eagle's breast, bent branch held by eagle's right talon.
Reverse D1 17 berries in wreath.
Reverse D2 16 berries in wreath.

Hub design detail information is © Leroy Van Allen.
For more information on hub design differences, please refer to Chapter 6, in the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars.

Reading the VAM Pages

Hub types are important because when a VAM is identified, the obverse and reverse hub varieties are listed. When new characteristics of a specific sub-variety are identified, it is given a revision number that is appended to the hub variety. To make sure this makes sense, let's apply this to an actual VAM listing.
This example is of a VAM listed under the 1881-S date and mintmark. The header description states that this is VAM has a doubled "88" in the date and a repunched mintmark "S/S" that is set far to the left. We will be discussing these kinds of things a bit later. For now though, lets focus on the sub-heading for the listing.

1881-S VAM-15 Doubled 88, S/S Far Left

15 III2 8 - C3g (Doubled 88, S/S Far Left) (185) I-3 R-3
The following table illustrates the how the sub-heading is broken down:

Field Description
15 VAM ID #
III2 Obverse hub type (III) with minor hub design type (2). These are included so that the collector knows what principle design features are on the coin.
8 Identification number for a specific variation of the obverse hub. While this may also identify a specific obverse die, it sometimes does not, especially for those dies where the number is 1, which almost always indicates a "normal" die. The number identifies the order in which it was listed by Mallis and Van Allen for that year and mint, not the order used by the mint to produce the coins minted for this year.
C3 Reverse hub type (C) with minor hub design type (3). These are included so that the collector knows what principle design features are on the coin.
g Identification letter for a specific variation of the reverse hub. While this may also identify a specific reverse die, it sometimes does not, especially for those dies where the letter is 'a', which almost always indicates a "normal" die. The letter identifies the order in which it was listed by Mallis and Van Allen for that year and mint, not the order used by the mint to produce the coins minted for this year.
(Doubled 88, S/S Far Left) Brief description of the VAM
(185) Number of reeds around the edge of the coin.
I-3 Interest level. The interest level identifies how interesting a variety collector may find a given VAM.
I-1 = Normal die variety with little interest to variety collectors.
I-2 = Minor die variety with some interest to variety collectors.
I-3 = Significant die variety with general interest to variety collectors.
I-4 = Major die variety with universal interest to variety collectors.
I-5 = Outstanding die variety with prime interest to variety collectors.
R-3 Rarity scale. The rarity scale identifies how likely you are to encounter the listed VAM "in the wild"
R-1 = Common (Tens of Millions)
R-2 = Not so Common (Several Million)
R-3 = Scarce (Hundreds of Thousands)
R-4 = Very Scarce (Tens of Thousands)
R-5 = Rare (Several Thousand)
R-6 = Very Rare (Several Hundred)
R-7 = Extremely Rare (Few Tens)
R-8 = Unique or Nearly Unique (Several)

One note of caution: Do not rely solely on the Interest and Rarity numbers. They are initial estimates made by Leroy Van Allen at the time that a variety was first cataloged, and are meant to be treated as such. Through the study and pursuit of specific varieties, a better estimate of the rarity as well as the market desirability is obtained. The original numbers assigned by Leroy will not, however. In other words, don't just buy it because it's an R-5. Likewise, the population reports from the TPGs are to be used as a guide for population of given VAMs, but are not 100% accurate. Several of the TPGs only encapsulate a sub-set of the known VAMs and thus would not be able to reflect any information about those coins that they do not cover. These population reports also do not take into account crack outs and resubmissions. Varieties added to the VAM catalog starting in 2022 will not have Rarity numbers given.

One important point about the way the VAM pages are listed: In some cases, you will come across a VAM page where there is no description for the obverse or reverse hub type. Do not look at the page thinking you are lost. When a page is shown without a description for something, it is normally due to the fact that the specific obverse or reverse die was already listed and described on a previous die variety combination and was not repeated in order to save space in the book. A quick search through a a few of the earlier VAMs listed will very likely provide you with the description you are looking for.

Date Positioning

The purpose of this section is to introduce you to date positions and how to identify what you have when looking at your coins. For most dates, identifying the date and mintmark position will allow you to eliminate VAMs that do not match your coin very quickly. It is also generally one of the first items that you will be asked for in the event that you ask for help with attributing a coin.
The following image is a lateral positioning guide from page 115 of the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars:

Image: Courtesy of Leroy Van Allen

This image identifies the positioning of the date as it relates to base of Liberty's neck (referred to as the neck "V"). The distance, or number of denticles, between the neck "V" and the beginning of the date will determine whether the date is considered near, normal, far, and the like. However, this tool is only really useful for Morgan dollars dated from 1884 to 1904.
A note from John Roberts: 1878 and 1921 dates were hubbed. The 1879-83 dates were partially hubbed in that the first two digits were in the hub. That's why you'll see the variations in space and angle of the second pair of digits relative to the first. You'll also find a number of dies with considerable differences in elevation above the field between the first two digits and the third and fourth. This is most easily noticed on 1880 dated coins.
Let's take a look at a few examples.

Very Near Date


Near Date


Normal Date

Left side of tolerated area:
This example illustrates the left-hand most area associated with normal date placement. The purpose of this image is to show you that in the 1884-1904 range, a date can be "within normal tolerance" without being exactly 2.5 denticles away from the neck "V".
Center of tolerated area:
Sentry02 101-Normal.jpg

Far Date

Sentry02 101-Far.jpg
In this example, notice the additional identifier for a normal date height. The height is the vertical distance from the denticles and can be low, normal, or high.

Very Far Date

This example illustrates the positioning of the date as very far laterally and a low height from the denticles. For an example of a high date, take a look at the 1885-O VAM-5.
One thing that has not been mentioned yet is whether the date is level or not. When you look at references that identify a "slanted" date, it is just that. A slanted date can be quite pronounced or slanted ever so slightly. The previous example for a Very Far Date illustrates a low, slanted, very far date. The "4" is farther away from the denticles than the "1". Typically, slanted dates will be positioned such that the "1" will be closer to the denticles than the last digit. This is not always the case, however, and in the event that the last digit is closer to the denticles, it will likely be in the VAM description.

Date Placement Indexing System (DPIS)

The Date Placement Indexing System (DPIS) is a more precise date position specification originally developed by John Roberts in his work on the 1889-CC Morgan dollars. This convention is consistent with that developed by Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis, in that it also uses the placement of the "1" in the date relative to the denticles, but it provides a finer "grid" in which to describe the date placement. John is not clear on the exact origin of this method of assigning a date placement, but it was used fundamentally by Howard Newcomb for use on middle and late date large cents. Because this date placement convention has evolved, it will be referred to as the “Date Placement Indexing System”, or DPIS for short.

The DPIS convention uses the placement of both the right and left edges of the base crossbar of the "1" in the date relative to the denticles. The right edge placement uses REB1 as the short hand label, while the left edge uses LEB1. REB1 stands for “Right Edge Base” and LEB1 stands for Left Edge Base. Right and left edges are as viewed by the attributor.

The user should also remember that Liberty’s neck point points between two denticles. The first denticle to the right of the neck point is denticle number 1, second left denticle is denticle number 2, etc.

Dpis denticles.jpg

The date placement is described by LEB1-REB1 relative to the denticles.

As an example, referring to the image above, LEB1 is described as C3. This means the left edge of the base of the "1" is centered over the third denticle. REB1 is described as B45C. This means the right edge of the base of the "1" is between the 4th and 5th denticles, at the center. A DPIS convention for this coin would be LEB1 C3 - REB1 B45C. For brevity, this will be abbreviated C3/B45C in the descriptions, as LEB1 and REB1 is always implied. The table below shows how the DPIS system for the LEB1 maps to the date placement used in the VAM descriptions. The size of the 1 changed slightly over time, so the typical REB1 positions shown won't always map to the same LEB1 position and are not meant to in the table.

Date Placement
VAM Book Position LEB1 (Left Edge of Base of 1) REB1 (Right Edge of Base of 1)
Very Near C2 Center of 2nd denticle
RH2 Right half of 2nd denticle
RE2 Right edge of 2nd denticle
Near B23LE Between 2nd and 3rd denticle, left edge
B23C Between 2nd and 3rd denticle, centered
B23RE Between 2nd and 3rd denticle, right edge
Normal LE3 Left edge of 3rd denticle RH4 Right half of 4th denticle
LH3 Left half of 3rd denticle RE4 Right edge of 4th denticle
C3 Center of 3rd denticle B45LE Between 4th and 5th denticle, left half
RH3 Right half of 3rd denticle B45C Between 4th and 5th denticle, centered
RE3 Right edge of 3rd denticle B45RE Between 4th and 5th denticle, right edge
Far B34LE Between 3rd and 4th denticle, left edge LE5 Left edge of 5th denticle
B34C Between 3rd and 4th denticle, centered LH5 Left half of 5th denticle
B34RE Between 3rd and 4th denticle, right edge C5 Center of 5th denticle
Very Far LE4 Left edge of 4th denticle RH5 Right half of 5th denticle
LH4 Left half of 4th denticle RE5 Right edge of 5th denticle
C4 Center of 4th denticle

In later die stages, the edges of both the denticles and the digits begin to blur and it becomes difficult to distinguish position within the space between denticles with much precision. For this reason, the trailing C, LH, and RH may be omitted in some cases.

Some samples of DPIS for illustrative purposes:

B23C4 Dpis b23c4.jpg
LE3RH4 Dpis le3rh4.jpg
C3B45 Dpis c3b45.jpg

Mint Mark Positioning

The second piece to most puzzles regarding VAMs is the position and orientation of the mint mark. For some coins, whether the mint mark is doubled/repunched or not will also provide necessary information as to which VAM you are holding. The following image is a mint mark positioning guide from page 116 of the Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars. The illustration indicates the so-called normal tolerance in mint mark position and tilt that Van Allen and Mallis have assigned.

Image: Courtesy of Leroy Van Allen

Yes, the image is slightly tilted and no, it was not meant as a joke. This image illustrates the relative positioning of the mint marks for Morgan dollars. All mint marks but Philadelphia (no mint mark) will be listed in this location. If you refer to the "O" as centered, then deviations over the guide lines in any direction will dictate whether the mint mark is low, high, shifted left, or shifted right. Since the mint marks were punched in by hand, they may also be rotated or "tilted" to the left or right.
Furthermore, it is possible for a Morgan dollar to have a mint mark that reflects multiple conditions. As an example, the1881-O VAM-36 has a mint mark that is both set left and tilted left. It is very important to point out that when you are taking photos of the mint mark on your Morgan dollar, it is imperative that you include the wreath bow and the wreath bow must be leveled. Leveling the wreath bow will allow you to see any tilting or shifting more readily than if it is shown at an angle. It is also important to keep the "DO" of "DOLLAR" in the viewer so that you can identify if a mint mark is situated low.
Let's look at a few mint mark examples:
Sentry02 101-MM-Combined.jpg
The following mint marks are illustrated:

  • CC mint mark that is tilted to the left. When CC mint marks tilt, they look a bit off because of the fact that they are two characters that are punched instead of a single character. It is also possible to have one "C" lower than the other and the spacing between the "C"s may also differ as is found with several of the 1878-CC VAMs.
  • S mint mark that is shifted to the left. This mint mark is shifted to the left and may be very slightly tilted to the left. It may also be that the wreath bow was not 100% level when the photo was taken.
  • O mint mark that is shifted to the right and low. The mint mark is shifted to the right of center and the bottom of the "O" will touch the top of the "O" from DOLLAR when a line is drawn. Photo is slightly tilted to the right.
  • O mint mark that is high and significantly tilted to the right. The mint mark is high because it invades the lower space between the portions of the bow and is noticeably tilted to the right.

Other Things You'll Observe

Strike Doubling vs. Doubled Dies

While looking at Morgan silver dollars, there are two types of doubling that you will very likely encounter; strike doubling and die doubling.
Strike doubling has flat shiny surfaces. It is from flat field (which is high area of die) sliding or bouncing over onto edge of letters or design. It reduces extent of coin letter or design and is not something that is listed as a die variety as it is a product of the striking process and not the die itself. Die doubling is caused by raised letters or design hitting die slightly out of register during multiple hubbing blows on Morgan dies. Die doubling has dull rounded tops that enlarge design or letters.
Doubling on a mint mark and nearby wreath or legend letters in same direction is likely strike doubling. Since the mint mark was punched into die after design was hubbed in, it is unlikely that any die doubling on mint mark would be in same direction as that on design or letters.
Note: The Morgan dollar was minted with the obverse die as the hammer and the reverse die as the anvil. For this reason, most strike doubling can be found on the reverse of Morgan dollars.
Let's look at a few examples of strike doubling:
Sentry02 SD-Combined1.jpg
One of the easiest ways to describe strike doubling is that it appears as a flat, shelf--like surface and is typically uniformly to one side of a given image. Picture the image being struck and then sliding slightly as it is released. This example illustrates the strike doubling of Liberty's profile. While less common to see strike doubling on the obverse of the coin, it is certainly possible.
Sentry02 SD-Combined2.jpg
This example illustrates strike doubling on the under side of the eagle's right wing (viewed left). Again, the doubled image is very flat and looks like the image slid across the coin. Other common areas to find strike doubling is on the motto and legend of the reverse.
Sentry02 SD-Reverse-Legend.jpg
This example shows strike doubling in a very common area; the reverse legend. Notice the flat shelf on top of the letters of UNITED. In contrast, let's take a look at what we are comparing it to. This way you'll have a point of reference for hub doubling as well.
Sentry02 DDO-Combined1.jpg
This example was pulled from an 1887-P VAM-12A. Notice the doubling at the top of "RIB" from PLURIBUS. This doubling has a depth to it and appears to be part of the image as it was imprinted on the coin. Again, this is because it's part of the die and not part of the process.
Sentry02 DDO-Combined2.jpg
As one of the more drastically hub doubled varieties out there, the 1888-O VAM-4 takes the prize. The die has been doubled to the point that there is an extra set of nose, lips, and chin. Again, there is no flat surface to speak of, just depth.
Finally, let's look at a more deceptive type of strike doubling. We will be using the same area on two different coins. The area in question is the left wreath on the reverse (as viewed). The first example shown is on an 1889-P VAM-3. The second example shows a 1878-P VAM-232.
Sentry02 Doubling-90108.jpg
When looking at the 1889-P on the left, it may not be as noticeable that what you are looking at is strike doubling. To some extent, it does have many of the same characteristics that are found when looking at actual die doubling. As John Roberts explains about the coin on the left, "There are areas where the doubling comes right up to the leaf tip. That degree of shift should leave a big notch on the leaf tip, but there's nothing". The notches John refers to are circled in the 1878-P on the right-hand side. Notice the secondary leaf tips that show as small notches in and around the leaf tips. This tips us off to die doubling.
These examples show you a few of the things that you'll see when looking at your Morgan dollars, but they do not show you everything that you may encounter. Many people still struggle with strike doubling as it can be very misleading depending on where it is located on the Morgan. The more you become accustomed to looking for it, the better you will get at spotting it.
There is an outstanding article about strike doubling vs. die doubling written by John Wexler available at his website, [here.]

Die Cracks and Die Breaks

Die cracks are exactly what they sound like, cracks on the die used to impress the coin. Die cracks are thin splits in a die face that result in thin, shallow raised lines on the coin. Thin die cracks are very common and typically alone are NOT enough to be considered for a new VAM designation. This point can't be stressed enough. Can die cracks be included in VAMs? Absolutely, but must be visible to the naked eye and must not be simply a thin line. Furthermore, die cracks may or may not be listed as VAMs if they are very common for the date and mint mark. However, most VAMs that include die cracks also have other attributes listed with them.
Let's take a look at an example coin:
Sentry02 Diecrack-Combined2.jpg
This coin illustrates some of the ways that die cracks can deceive you. First of all, all of the listed die cracks are from the same coin. Second, there are other die cracks on this coin not shown. At first glance, this coin looks impressive and also includes some attributes not discussed, such as a "railroad track" die clash on the reverse. However, these die cracks are very common for an 1886-P Morgan dollar and, alone, are not listable as a VAM. This particular set of attributes is thought to be an 1886-P VAM-1G where the letter transfer from the clashed "N" has been removed.
Die breaks, on the other hand, are a much more noticeable and may vary in size and shape. A die break is a gap in the die face from chunks of metal breaking out of the die. Tiny die chips are fairly common and not generally visible to the naked eye. Again, die breaks must be significant and visible to the naked eye in order to be listed. Furthermore, they must not be hidden in the design detail or denticles.
Note: Under higher magnification, die cracks will often show small areas where the metal has broken away from the die. These areas are generally not considered for listing as a VAM.
Let's take a look at an example coin:
Sentry02 DieBreak-Combined.jpg
In this example, you can clearly see the difference between a die crack and a die break. Notice the bottom right side of the 6th right star on this 1921-P Morgan dollar. There is clearly an area where metal has broken away from the die and it causes a lump on the coin as it is minted. If you follow the die break further south, it turns into a line. However, notice the thickness differential from the die crack. Seeing them side by side should help you identify what type of things you're looking for. The example coin used is a 1921-P VAM-3X.
Likely the most famous of all die crack / die break combinations would be the 1888-O VAM-1B LDS, nicknamed "Scarface" for its impressive die crack and break combination from rim to rim, through Liberty's face. Other popular die break varieties include the 1887-P VAM-1A Donkey Tail and the 1888-O VAM-1A Clashed E reverse.

Die Clashing

As odd as it might sound, this section is not intended to give an overview of clashed dies. For an excellent overview of clashed dies, please refer to this page. The intent is to provide information about where to look for certain clashed items and how to separate the noise from the good stuff. There are several things that are helpful when looking at Morgans with die clashes. Before we look at some examples of clashed coins, it is important to have an idea of where to look for specific attributes.
Note: All clashed letters on the obverse of a Morgan dollar will be incuse or into the field, whereas clashed letters on the reverse will all be raised.
The following images are designed to serve as visual references for where specific clashed attributes occur on Morgan dollars. These areas are color coded based on how frequently the areas are associated with identified VAMs. The color coding is as follows:

  • Green: Frequently associated with VAM listings.
  • Yellow: Moderately associated with VAM listings.
  • Yellow with Red outline: Associated with only a few VAM listings.
  • Red: Hardly associated with any VAM listings and may generally be ignored.

Having clash marks in the red zone does not mean that you should always ignore it and that you will never have any VAMs in this area. There are VAMs in these areas, but are far less likely than clashing found in the green areas. Likewise, clashing in the green areas will not always produce a VAM. In particular to the green areas, the key to associating the zone with a VAM is the presence of letter transfer from the reverse. Clash marks without letter transfer are NOT considered listable and should be ignored.
Obverse color coding of VAMs:
Sentry02 Obverse-ClashColor4.jpg
Reverse color coding of VAMs:
Sentry02 Reverse-ClashColor3.jpg
You have no doubt noticed that the color coded images are also numbered. The following table will explain what each of the numbered areas references in relation to die clashing:

Field Description
1 This area is associated with the clashing around the lips. The obverse will look like there is smoke coming off of the mouth and lips of Liberty and the reverse will show a long, curved clash (sometimes several) that will terminate at the top as two vertical semi-circles.
2a This area is where you will find the clash marks associated with clashed "N", "IN", and "G" characters. On the obverse, 2a represents the location of the clash marks. This area is not listed as green because it does not always yield a VAM. Just because the clash mark line is present at Liberty's neck does not mean that there will be a letter transfer below it. It is very important to remember than clash marks do not equal VAMs without transfer.
2b 2b represents the location against the neck where the actual clashed letter or letters transfer will be found. In order for a "G" to be clashed on the obverse at the neck, the reverse die must be slightly rotated. On the reverse, the clash marks will originate from the eagle's right wing and either go straight up into the characters of "IN" or curve out slightly to the right before going straight up into the "G". The strength of these clash marks on the reverse will key you into whether or not letter transfer will take place on the obverse.
3 This area is associated with clashed "U", "S", or "T" characters from the word TRUST in the reverse motto. Often, detecting the "U", "S", or "T" clashes is a bit more difficult than "N" or "G" clashes and may take quite some time to get used to. However, there are several VAMs where there is an exceptionally strong letter transfer. One thing to keep in mind is that the reverse for area 3 is in yellow. This is because clashing in this area does not mean that you will have letter transfer on the obverse for area 3. Again, letter transfer matters when it comes to VAM designation.
4 This area is associated with the transfer of the designer's initial from the obverse to an area just above the "D" in GOD on the reverse motto. The designer's initial can be seen as two or three short strokes in the field above the "D".
5 This area is associated with the clashed "E" varieties that exist. Many of this type of VAM is not too difficult to detect, but there are others that are very difficult to pickup and can easily be misattributed. The letter transfer can be a partial "E" from LIBERTY or even several letters (BERT).
6 / 7 These areas are associated with the transfer of the mint mark and part of the "D" in DOLLAR from the reverse to the obverse field above and to the right of the wheat stalks. These areas are listed as green because if there is clashing present, it is very likely to have a VAM associated with it.
8 This area is associated with the clash and transfer of the stalks and lower portions of the cotton bolls from the obverse to the area just above the arrow heads on the reverse. One thing to point out, as mentioned by John Coxe; If you do not have the cotton boll transfer in this area, the likelihood of a clashed "E" being present is low.
9 This area is associated with the transfer of the back of the phrygian cap on the obverse as a greater than sign on the reverse near the top of the right wreath. Likewise, the obverse will show spikes on the back of the phrygian cap. In its most drastic display, the actual wreath may be displayed in the field behind the phrygian cap on the obverse.

This area is typically not associated with VAM listings and may normally be ignored. However, some VAMs that show heavy clashing in this area do carry other attributes and are associated with VAMs. 1886-P VAM-1C is an example of a VAM that makes use of this area.

10 This area is associated with the clashing of hair curls from Liberty to the reverse under the chin of the eagle. While it is possible to have VAMs associated with clashing in this area (1886-P VAM-1C for example), it is not always the case.

Now that you have seen many of the areas that a Morgan dollar will show clashing and have learned what each of the clashed areas is related to, it's time to look at a few different coins to understand a few finer points of the clashing that you can expect to see.
Sentry02 1887P-No-Combined.jpg
This example illustrates exactly how some clashing simply does not provide letter transfer. The weakness of the clash and the fact that it doesn't even reach the character in the motto makes it very unlikely that it will provide letter transfer on the obverse.
Sentry02 ClashedG-Combined.jpg
A strong clash mark that makes solid contact with the target character in the motto is far more likely to provide letter transfer at the neck of Liberty on the obverse. Think about it as being a "contact hitter" in baseball.

Images courtesy of Mitzydog

Some coins, such as this 1884-P VAM-2A show an impressive amount of clashing and transfer on both obverse and reverse of the coin. Images are only a subset of the clashing encountered.
Here is a Morgan Overlay, typical but does vary based on the Rotation of the dies used

Die Scratches and Gouges

This section will focus on a few additional items that are commonly found with Morgan dollars; die scratches and die gouges. Both scratches and gouges are die defects caused by the die coming into contact with a foreign object. Because the die came into contact with a foreign object, there is a portion of the die missing in the affected area. This is important to keep in mind because they will be displayed as raised areas on the coin, NOT as depressed areas. Both scratches and gouges can appear as straight lines on the coin, but gouges will typically be much thicker. In order to be listed as a VAM, they must be readily visible to the naked eye. Otherwise, they will likely be used as die markers if necessary.
Let's look at a few die scratch examples:
Sentry02 1898P-ChinScratch-Combined2.jpg
The two listed die scratches are from a 1898-P Morgan. One die scratch runs from the rear of the neck to the front, where it is intersected by an almost vertical die scratch.
Sentry02 1898P-Lips-Combined2.jpg
This die scratch is from the same Morgan dollar. Notice how all of these die scratches are raised areas on the coin, indicating die damage. To give you some idea about what is required to have a die scratch list as a VAM, both of these were cited as being too small and not readily visible enough to the naked eye. However, both would serve as excellent die markers should the need ever arise.
So, how small can they get? How about REALLY small:
Die gouges, on the other hand, are usually thicker than die scratches and may also be of varying sizes. Let's take a look at a few die gouge examples:
Sentry02 1884CC-ClashedU-Combined2.jpg
This die gouge is hidden fairly well within the hair V of Liberty. Because of it's location and size, this die gouge is not listable. If this die gouge was out in the open somewhere that it could be seen, it might be listable as a VAM.
Sentry02 1885P-DotandGouge-Combined2.jpg
This example illustrates two areas of interest. The top left area shows a small dot of metal on Liberty's hair curls and the bottom right shows an exceptionally small die gouge in between hair curls. Both of the listed attributes here are too small to list and are hidden well from the naked eye. Thus, neither are listable as VAMs.
So we've seen a lot of things that don't make the grade. How about we look at a few that did cut it as a VAM:

After reviewing several of the listed VAMs, you should have a good idea about what is considered for listing as a VAM and what is simply too small or too obscured to list.

Overlapping Edge Reeding

Morgan dollars have two distinct characteristics around the edge of the coin. There is a raised rim on both obverse and reverse dies so that coins can be stacked without the central designs touching. If the central designs were to touch, it would cause wear and make the stack unstable. The rim is a circular depression on the dies and planchets are "upset" by the upsetting machine to make the planchet edges thicker in order to fully fill up the rim band on the die when struck. There is also a reeded edge, which is a product of the actual striking of the coin. The collar that holds the planchet in place is grooved so that when the dies produce some 150 tons of pressure during the coin strike, the reed is imprinted on the edge of the coin. The reeding number displayed in the VAM listings identifies the number of reeds, or grooves along the edge of the coin. Edge reeding varies anywhere from 157 to 194, based on year and mint mark of the coin.
After the hunt for VAMs began, Jeff Oxman discovered an anomaly referred to as overlapping reeding. Overlapping reeding is caused by the milling machine producing grooves around the collar swedging tool not in perfect alignment at the start and end points. Instead, the start and end grooves merge together with smaller groove spacing and with grooves fading away to the right and left. The grooved swedging tool is forced into the collar opening to produce the reeding grooves and ridges inside the collar.
Here is an example of overlapping reeding on 3 different areas of the same coin
The edge reeding illustrated in the example shows the effect that is indicative of overlapping reeding. It is not isolated to any one point around the coin's edge and may occur anywhere along the edge. When identifying certain VAMs that are unattributed, but graded by a TPG, the coin slab can make it all but impossible to identify any overlapped reeding without cracking the coin out of the slab. As a general rule, it is not recommended that coins are removed from the grading slabs so in these cases it would be necessary to rely on secondary diagnostics.


This brief introduction to Morgan dollar VAMs should give you a good starting point of reference on many of the most common problem areas that newcomers are faced with once they decide to take up VAMming. Becoming familiar with the points covered in this tutorial are essential to your success in the hobby and understanding the difference between a VAM and what looks cool, but is just noise that can be ignored.
Happy VAMming and good luck!
- Bradley Graham (Sentry02)
This tutorial would not have been possible without the input and help from many of the folks on this site. The list includes, but is not limited to:

  • Vampicker
  • Coxe
  • JLee2027
  • W1WScott
  • Ben100
  • Mitzydog
  • RobJoyce

A special thank you to Leroy Van Allen for allowing me to use his images and other mint production and die related information. Without you, I wouldn't have a hobby nearly as fun as the one I do.
© 2009 Bradley Graham All rights reserved. No part of this Guide may be reproduced by any means without written permission from the author. Used by VAMWorld with permission.