Metal Detector Guide: Explains How They Work, Types, Cost & Best Places To Use Them

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Metal detecting is a rewarding hobby. There is the anticipation of heading out for a search, not knowing if you’re about to make an exciting find. You can explore new areas and learn about local history. The ground beneath our feet holds a wealth of riches, and as a metal detectorist, you could be the first one to find a historical treasure.

There is also the potential for finding buried treasure that could give you a financial windfall. You don’t need to be an experienced metal detectorist to make a big find. Young and old detectorists can make valuable finds on their hundredth hunt, or their first. Some lucky detectorists have made discoveries that changed their lives, becoming overnight millionaires.

Metal detecting is also a social activity. You can set off for a day out with the family or enjoy the camaraderie of other metal detectorists. Share stories of your finds, and get the locations of fertile hunting grounds from your detectorist community.

Because you’re enthralled in your adventures, you won’t even notice how in shape you get while traversing fields and river beds. 

Modern metal detectors are easy to set up, so you can be ready to go right out of the box. We have a detailed list of articles from our top choices for every usage of metal detectors, to all the top brands on the market. You can check these out to find the best metal detector for you. 

 

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Interesting Metal Detecting Finds

Heading out for a morning with your metal detector can be a lot of fun and a great way to stay fit. However, you might also make an incredible find and even become rich. Here are some examples of inspiring metal detecting discoveries.

Spanish Fleet Gold Coins

In 2015, a team of treasure hunters found $4.5 million in gold coins lost in a Spanish shipwreck just off the Florida coast [1]. Incredibly, the ship was part of a Spanish fleet that sank in 1715, and there were 350 previously undiscovered gold coins on board. 

Civil War Relics

Battlegrounds are fertile hunting areas for finding buried treasure. In Clarke County,  Virginia, a 7-year-old boy who had asked for a metal detector for his birthday, discovered what experts believe to be a Civil War-era sword [2]. A fantastic aspect of this story is that the family does not intend to sell the sword for financial gain, preferring to keep it as a treasured find.

A Golden Chalice

In 2008 Mike Demar detected a 385-year-old golden chalice from the Spanish ship, Santa Margarita, off the Florida coast [3]. After sinking in 1622, the ship held its treasure until Mike discovered it, and made a cool $1 million.

A Ring from Little Bighorn

In 1876, the Sioux and Cheyenne Indians defeated Lieutenant Colonel George Custer and his troops in the Battle of Little Bighorn. Over 200 years later, there have been numerous discoveries made by metal detectorists in the area [4]. 

One such find was a ring that was still on its owner’s finger. While there are obvious financial gains from such a discovery, there is also enormous historical significance.

Mojave Nugget

You don’t need to visit a historic battlefield, or even a shipwreck, to find buried treasure. In 1977, prospector Ty Paulsen used his metal detector to find a huge gold nugget worth $400,000 in the Mojave Desert in California[5]. The buyers donated it to the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles.

Boot of Cortez

You don’t need an expensive metal detector to find amazing pieces of treasure. In 1989, a prospector using an inexpensive and basic detector found the largest surviving gold nugget in the western hemisphere [6]

While searching in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico, he found what is now known as the Boot of Cortez. It subsequently sold for $1.55 million at auction.

What Is a Metal Detector and How It Works at a High Level

Metal detecting is interwoven with technology. It’s important to learn how metal detectors work and how to use one before you head out on your first hunt. It’s also essential to experiment with settings and technique so you can have a better chance of finding buried treasure.

How Do Metal Detectors Work?

Metal detectors use a combination of electricity and magnetism, two forces that are inextricably linked. Electricity can create magnetism and vice-versa, and where you find one, you find the other. Because they are always together, we use the term electromagnetism. 

A crucial principle to understand is that a changing magnetic field causes a changed electrical field, and a changing electrical field causes a changed magnetic field. This may seem complicated at first, but it’s the key to how metal detectors work. 

A popular metal detector is the Very Low Frequency (VLF) model. It has a transmitter coil and a receiver coil. The transmitter coil creates a magnetic field around the head of the detector. 

When this magnetic field comes into contact with metal, it acts on the atoms within the metal, causing electrons to move. This creates a changing electric field, causing a changing magnetic field. In simple terms, the contact with the metal object creates a new magnetic field.

When the receiver coil comes into contact with the new magnetic field, it generates an electric current. Because the coil connects to a speaker, it makes a beep or click, alerting the user to the presence of metal beneath the metal detector’s head. The closer you are to metal, the stronger the magnetic field, and the louder the beep

The second type of metal detector uses Pulse Induction (PI) technology and usually has one coil acting as the transmitter and the receiver. A PI metal detector sends about a hundred tiny pulses of current per second, and when each one ends, the magnetic field reverses polarity, causing it to collapse. This generates an electrical spike.

This process causes a reflected pulse to run through the coil and lasts only around 30 microseconds. When this is over, a new pulse travels down the coil, and the process repeats. If you pass your detector over a metal object, a reverse magnetic field is created, and the reflected pulse lasts slightly longer. 

The detector picks up on this discrepancy and can alert the user to the presence of a potential find. Although PI detectors are less sensitive than VLF detectors, they can find metals that are buried deeper and are less sensitive to mineralized ground.

How To Use a Metal Detector

Using a metal detector is easy to learn, and some good techniques can help you get started quickly.

Choose Your Settings

Before starting, you need to set your metal detector up correctly. Most have preset detection modes to help identify specific types of metal. Next, pick your optional level of discrimination. This feature ensures your detector alerts you when you could have a potentially valuable find while ignoring junk, such as discarded aluminum beverage cans.

Finally, adjust your sensitivity level. While a high sensitivity setting helps find more metal, you may want to set it lower if you are in an area with a lot of metal in the ground. This can apply when you’re searching near houses or offices where there could be water pipes.

Test Your Metal Detector

This is also a great way to adjust your settings correctly. Bury a few types of metal just below the surface, either in soil or sand, and then pass your detector over the ground. Experiment with various settings until you are getting the best feedback. Now you can head out knowing your detector is ready.

Use The Correct Technique

While holding the metal detector head just above the ground, not touching it, move slowly forward. Swing your detector in a semi-circle shape, ending around a foot on either side of your body. 

Walk in a straight line to avoid covering the same search area twice. Once you have practiced this technique a few times, moving low and slow becomes natural and can be very relaxing.

Metal Detector Terminology

It’s easy to start on your metal detecting journey, but before you do, some phrases make it easier to understand the metal detecting world. Here are some key terms you’ll hear when talking with other metal detectorists.

Artifacts – Sometimes also called relics, these are man-made items you may find. We usually mean jewelry, buckles, or ammunition. Coins are in a separate category and are not considered an artifact.

Black Sand – Can consist of iron and other minerals that can give false-positive readings. It can also reduce the operating depth of your metal detector. However, because black sand is dense, it can also trap and hold small items such as coins and rings. 

Chatter – Noise disturbance or temporary losses in signal usually caused by minerals or tiny iron pieces. You can adjust your metal detector sensitivity to combat the issue.

Coil – This is the piece of your metal detector that locates artifacts and coins.

Control Box – As the name suggests, this part houses the circuits, breakers, batteries, and other components essential for operating your metal detector.

Depth – How deep your find lies underneath the surface.

Digger – This can be any tool you use to unearth your find. There are many specialized tools for specific purposes, although many detectorists just choose to carry a normal garden trowel.

Discrimination – This setting can save you time by identifying junk items. You can set it at varying levels, but it’s best not to set it any higher than an iron setting, in case you ignore potentially valuable finds.

Double D – A search head that has two large D-shaped coils. It allows you to search a   wider area.

Frequency – The measurement in Hertz of the current metal detector cycles.

Gold Metal Detector – A metal detector that is built to find gold. Gold detectors come in two forms: Very Low Frequency (VLF) and Pulse Induction (PI). VLF detectors are best for finding small pieces of gold that are close to the surface. PI detectors can locate medium-to-large nuggets that are buried deeper underground.

Ground Balance – Your detector works to neutralize ground minerals so it can find items more easily. Ground balance is the moment it reaches this point.

Ground Effect – Positive or negative minerals in the ground, leading to a loss of depth when detecting.

Ground Reject – When your metal detector overcomes the ground effect.

Hoard – A collection of valuable items buried in anticipation of collection, but are still there.

Hot Rock – One rock with a higher mineral content than the surrounding rocks.

Masking – Used when there is a good find that is masked by junk. This can result in mixed signals on your metal detector.

Mineralization – Naturally-occurring minerals that negatively affect the performance of your detector.

Pinpointer Metal Detector – A hand-held metal detector that precisely identifies the location of the find. Pinpointer metal detectors are excellent for locating single coins or smaller items.

Sensitivity – How deep your metal detector can locate finds. The higher the sensitivity, the greater the depth. However, it is not always best to use the highest setting, and you may want to lower the sensitivity to reduce unnecessary chatter in high-mineral content locations.

Scattered Hoard – Hoards that have been disturbed and scattered, often due to plowing or construction work. 

Signal – The noise made by your metal detector when it finds a metal item.

Stability – Maintaining threshold while staying in tune.

Stem – The cylindrical pole or shaft that connects the head to the other components on your metal detector.

Sweep – The movement of the coil head as you search for buried treasure. Many detectorists use a side-to-side motion to cover a wide area while walking forward in a straight line.

Threshold – The ideal tuning point when you can hear even a faint tone.

Tone Discrimination – Many modern metal detectors can identify a good or a bad find. They communicate this information through varying tones.

Trash – Unwanted finds such as cans or junk metal.

Tune – The process of finding the optimal level for your detector to perform at the best level. This can be different from location to location, depending on the soil composition, nearby power sources, etc.

Underwater Metal Detector – Can be either Very Low Frequency (VLF) or Pulse Induction (PI) metal detectors. VLF detectors are negatively affected by wet sand and ground mineralization and are best for searching in freshwater. 

PI metal detectors are not as sensitive as VLF models, but they do not react as poorly to minerals. These are better for detecting in saltwater, such as at the beach and SCUBA diving.

 

Best Locations for Metal Detecting

You can enjoy metal detecting just about anywhere, depending on what you want to find. There are great sites for searching for historical relics, places with high footfall for modern finds, and quieter sites that other detectorists haven’t discovered. 

Always request written permission before exploring on private land. Once you have obtained permission from the landowner (if required), here are a few of the best places to visit.

Your Backyard

Apart from potentially finding items that previous owners may have dropped, this is a great opportunity to test your metal detector. Bury a few items and then try to find them with your detector. 

Sporting Arenas

People bring money to sports stadiums, jump around, get distracted, and leave without noticing they’ve dropped their coins. You can even find medals or other memorabilia that fans have brought into the stadium to get their hero’s signature. You could be the hero who returns a keepsake for a fan who drops their memento.

Open Parks

Parks are high-traffic areas, and this means a lot of dropped coins and jewelry.  Although you may require permission to dig in a park, it can be lucrative to search for treasure

The Beach

Beaches are a popular spot for metal detecting. Unlike dropping coins or jewelry on hard ground when they may still be easily visible, the color of sand can make it difficult to find items. In addition, items can sink into the sand, or people can accidentally bury them by kicking sand over the top of dropped items. 

The tide can also wash lost treasure up on the beach, so it is a great spot to find valuable pieces. Because tides often wash up items in pockets, continue to search for several pieces after finding the first one.

Church Grounds

While some buildings and sports grounds may be modern structures, many churches have been on the same land for hundreds of years. These areas can be prime spots for finding ancient loot.

A word of caution: You should never walk on burial grounds, and you should always get permission from the church before hunting on its property. 

Battlegrounds

There are thousands of battlefields all over the world. In the United States, there are hundreds of Civil War sites, and you could find a prized piece of history with your metal detector. 

Although these sites are popular, and treasure hunters have already found many items, they are still a rich hunting ground. Avoid areas of these battlefields where soldiers are buried, and alert local officials if you find something that could indicate fallen soldiers in an unmarked area. 

Deserted Towns

Perhaps the town people had to leave in a hurry or only take what they could carry. If you live near a deserted town, or even abandoned groups of houses, you could find valuable discarded items. 

Racetracks

Horse racing is a sport associated with the wealthy. It is also a sport that gets people off their seats and jumping around. Take your metal detector around the standing and seating areas and see if you can find any jewelry or even a money clip. It could be a lucrative day out. 

Rivers and Streams 

When people drop coins or jewelry into a stream, they usually have difficulty finding and retrieving them. This makes streams and river beds a great place to find buried treasure. Keep an eye out for watches, rings, and bracelets lost in the dark water and the sand or silt around the banks.

 

Ethical Considerations and Legal Things to Know about Metal Detecting

Metal detecting differs from other hobbies because we do not have a defined area in which to operate. Our imaginations and sense of adventure can take us anywhere. This increased freedom means as responsible metal detectorists; we have to be aware of certain legal and ethical considerations.

Be Aware of Local Laws

If you venture into a different state or even another town, you may be unaware of the local laws. If you fall afoul of legal regulations, you could get a fine, end up in court, or even be incarcerated. However, you can easily research online and call or email local authorities for advice before starting your search.

Metal detectors are not allowed in National Parks and many other public lands. Some state and city parks may also not allow metal detectors. 

Ask Permission Before Entering Private Property

Private property can be a goldmine because not everyone is allowed to enter. It’s good practice to find the landowner, be polite, and ask for permission to metal detect on their property. You can even offer to share any finds. 

By being polite, you have a greater chance of gaining permission, and you also give a good impression of the metal detecting community.

Return Finds to Their Owners

If you don’t know who a find belongs to and have no reasonable way of finding out, you can keep the item. However, if you’re on private land or the find has an engraved name or address, you should take the proper steps to return the item to its owner

Dig Responsibly

Finds are exciting, but you shouldn’t dig in haste. Using a pinpoint detector can give you an exact location, and using smaller digging tools creates smaller holes and causes less damage. Be careful never to destroy property. Aside from possibly being illegal, it is unethical.

If you’ve dug a hole, fill it back in after locating your find. By leaving areas as you found them, you can give a positive impression of all metal detectorists, and demonstrate care for the environment.

Share Your Finds

Archeologists and museums love to hear about historical finds. Consider taking your find in to show them. Archeologists are usually found in classical history, art, or geology departments at your local university. You can learn from their in-depth knowledge, while they can gain valuable information from your find.

Sharing information and spreading knowledge helps raise the area’s profile, letting other detectorists know it could be fruitful.

Help Beginners

We all have to start somewhere, and we can all learn from those who have more experience. The metal detectorist community is a friendly one, and you’ll often get a wave and a cheery greeting as you pass each other. 

If you come across kids and beginner detectorists, you can help them to learn the proper etiquette. Stop and ask if they need any tips for calibrating their detector, or advise them about the terrain if there are any areas of interest or to avoid. We all benefit from showing that we are a polite, considerate, and thoughtful group.

Conclusion

Metal detecting is a fun hobby that can also be lucrative. There’s something wonderful about being in the great outdoors, breathing in the fresh air while discovering coins and trinkets buried beneath our feet.

The metal detector community is unique because only those involved can appreciate the anticipation and excitement you feel when you’re on a buried treasure hunt. There is never a guarantee that you will bring home a valuable find, but there is also the chance you could discover something of historical magnitude and give you a healthy profit.

It’s easy to get involved in metal detecting, and you can get started on any kind of budget. Our community is here to help, and we’ve written the Best Metal Detector Reviews to give you some informative pointers. 

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