The obverse design was modified from the two-cent piece already in production. It features the Union shield with a cross atop it and arrows crossed at it's base. The legend 'IN GOD WE TRUST' appears above it, and the date appears below it. The reverse features the number 5 encircled by 13 stars. The legend 'UNITED STATES OF AMERICA' appears above the stars and 'CENTS' appears below them. The union shield on the obverse was meant to reinforce the victory of the North over the South in the Civil War.
The first Shield Nickels were coined with rays between the stars on the obverse. The rays proved difficult to strike and by 1867 they were removed from the design. There were no other changes to the coin until it was replaced by the Liberty Nickel in 1883.