The Jefferson nickel is now in its 80s and among the longest-running series in our nation's history. It's a coin most people alive today always remember as their contemporary nickel type. And, even though many fondly remember collecting Buffalo nickels straight from circulation in the 1940s and 1950s, the Jefferson nickel was already there co-mingling with those obsolete types in pocket change. The first coins in the Jefferson nickel series are those dated 1938 -- the ones that directly replaced the Buffalo nickel, which ran from 1913 through 1938.
As a first-year type, the 1938 Jefferson nickels are popular collectibles, but they're not necessarily rare. The Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints all struck Jefferson nickels in 1938. The 1938 Philly is the most common of the three, with a mintage of 19,496,000 pieces; these are tougher to find in circulation, but dedicated roll searchers can land one with enough patience.
The 1938-D and 1938-S Jefferson nickels are significantly tougher. The D-mint has a mintage of 5,376,000 and the S-mint has a smaller mintage still of only 4,105,000. Even with survival rates being a fraction thereof those mintages, neither issue is rare in circulated condition. However, they are often regarded as semi-key dates and are not quite on the order of scarcity as the 1939-D or 1950-D nickels -- the real regular-issue business-strike keys of the series.
All three 1938 business-strike Jefferson nickels should be obtainable for less than $20 apiece in Gem grades. Full Steps examples are decidedly scarcer and can set the collector back hundreds of dollars in top condition. Meanwhile, a 1938 proof Jefferson nickel is priced in the ballpark of $75 to $125 for a nice, mid-range example.