Treasure hunting has long been a fascination of mine since I was a little kid. I enjoyed reading about pirate adventures and buried treasure, and I would often dream of one day finding a cache of gold and jewels. There’s nothing like the thrill and excitement of finding lost treasure that’s been in the ground for centuries or more.
Metal Detecting is a fun and addicting hobby that capitalizes on the adventure and excitement of treasure hunting. Thanks to TV shows like American Digger, Gold Fever and Diggers, the hobby has grown fast over the past few years along with an ever increasing variety of metal detectors. For the first-time detectorist, choosing the right machine may seem like an overwhelming task. Choosing between cost, features and ease of use are enough to make your head spin, but we have come up with a few tips and insights to help guide you in your selection process.
What Type of Hunting Will You Do?
When it comes to metal detecting, people tend to hunt for different types of items. The five major types of hunting include:
Coin Shooting – searching primarily for coins, especially old silver or gold
Relic Hunting – searching for buried artifacts such as war memorabilia or items from old settlements
Beach Hunting – scouring the beaches for anything of value left behind by beach goers or washed ashore from shipwrecks
Underwater hunting – searching river beds and ocean floors
Prospecting – searching for gold nuggets and other precious metal ores
You need to ask yourself, “What type of hunting will I be doing most often?” This will narrow your detector selection down quite a bit. While all detectors do detect metal objects, many are specifically designed with technology for certain types of hunting.
Metal detectors are manufactured in a wide range of frequencies and knowing what frequencies respond best to certain metal types allows you to make an informed decision about which detector to go with. Lower frequency detectors (typically 3 – 12 kHz) tend to hit on silver coin-sized or bigger objects extremely well, making it a great choice for coin shooters. Higher frequency machines (typically 13 kHz and higher) are much better at detecting extremely small metallic objects such a small gold nuggets or jewelry pieces and are the detectors best suited for prospecting.
Beach and underwater hunting bring special challenges in choosing a detector. Wet sand tends to conduct signals differently from dry sand and the ability to adjust for the ground conditions becomes more important. Also, the proximity to water would require assessing the need for a completely waterproof machine. There are several metal detector units designed to detect objects underwater. It’s important to have a detector that can withstand the water pressure and protect the electronics from damage.
Once you determine the type of hunting you will do the most, you can start looking at metal detectors that are made to accomplish your detecting goals.
Selecting the Right Search Coil
When looking at different detector models, you will see a couple of different coil types mentioned. Generally, a detector will come with either a concentric coil or a DD (Double D) coil. The main thing you need to know about these coils is what type of detection field each one has.
Concentric coil – A concentric coil is usually round in shape and looks similar to a target board. Here is a diagram that shows how the detection field for this type of coil works:
Notice how the detection field narrows intro a cone shape. This makes it very easy to pinpoint a target under the center of the coil for easy retrieval.
DD Coil – A DD coil is usually oblong or oval in shape, but there are some circular models available. The detection is much different on a DD coil than the concentric version. The detection field is very narrow and runs down the center of the coil much like a knife blade. Here is a diagram that illustrates the detection field:
DD coils can offer a couple of advantages in certain situations. First, the narrow detection field can drastically help with target separation. Two targets lying side-by-side would be easier to distinguish than with a concentric coil. Another advantage is that the depth of the detection field is the same from front to rear of the coil allowing it to cover more ground with each sweep. DD coils also tend to handle soil mineralization better which results in fewer false signals.
Generally, the stock coils that come with a new metal detector are in the mid-range at about 8-10”. Most manufacturers offer additional larger and smaller coils for purchase. The larger the coil, the more ground that can be covered in less time. However, this can have some drawbacks. A larger detection field can mean several targets being detected at once leading to more “trashy” signals that may be discarded. Larger coils should be used in open areas known to be relatively clean of trash.
For trashy areas like many parking lots or other high traffic areas, small “hockey puck” style coils are great for picking the good targets amongst all the garbage. These coils are usually around 5”-6” in diameter.
Manual or Fixed Ground Balancing Feature
Another important feature to consider with a new metal detector is the ability to manually ground balance the machine. Why is ground balancing important? Well, basically because every type of soil has a certain degree of natural mineralization which can affect a metal detectors detection field. Ground balancing allows the detector to adjust to the mineralization and reduce false readings.
Many cheaper metal detectors found in big box retailers do not have the capability of manual ground balancing. They usually have fixed factory set ground balancing which may or may not be suitable for your soil conditions. This can be especially important if you plan to do prospecting. Areas where gold and other precious metals are found tend to be high in mineralization.
Do I Need a Visual Display?
The vast majority of today’s metal detectors are equipped with a visual display. The amount of information that is displayed varies from minimal to very detailed. In actuality, the visual display is the hardest part of learning how a new detector works. What’s ironic about that is that a visual display is really not that necessary. Don’t get me wrong, it is nice to have for many different reasons, but you can detect just as well by listening to the audio tones your detector produces.
The main feature of a visual display is the VDI (visual discrimination identifier) which is nothing more than a numeric number used to identify the target under the coil. Some machines are more accurate at identifying targets than others, but the numbers should never be trusted as being right 100% of the time.
Here are some of the other features found on many metal detector displays:
The tones your machine produces for different targets are much more reliable in distinguishing good targets from bad targets. This is also the area that most newbies in the hobby get frustrated and decide to give it up. It takes a lot of time and practice before you really understand what the machine is telling you. With my first machine, I now know with 90% certainty whether my target is a coin, a pop top or a bottle cap just from the minor difference in the tone. Any seasoned digger will tell you that you should dig all solid repeatable signals, and I would say that is very sound advice!
The Bottom Line
My personal advice, speaking from experience, is to get the best quality machine for the type of hunting you want to do at the very beginning. Metal detecting takes time to master, and honestly, no ever really masters it, but we learn to “listen” to what our machines are saying which leads to better finds.
There are several reasons to put up the cash for a solid machine at the start. First, knowing you have a quality detector will boost your confidence and keep you engaged even when you aren’t finding targets. Cheaper machines tend to give false signals that will become very irritating and frustrating when you go to dig and find that there is nothing there. Finally, even if by some odd chance, you find that metal detecting is not your thing, quality machines have very good resell value compared to many other consumer products.
Hopefully I’ve been able to give you a few tips that will make purchasing your first metal detector a less agonizing experience. You’ll always wonder “what if I had gotten that one…” but truthfully, you will be able to learn more than the basics with any good machine, just take the time to practice, practice, practice!
Now start digging!