Lew is an American expat living in Honduras, a former gold miner, and now an avid prospector, explorer and metal detectorist.
With a little information and the right attitude, metal detecting can be an enjoyable and rewarding hobby. Even though hunters have been searching the ground for five decades, as long as there are people, there will be good finds. Many newcomers, however, make mistakes that cause them grief and frustration. Here are some of them:
1. Having Unrealistic Expectations
Foremost, you WON'T get rich metal detecting. Regardless of what the treasure magazines and detector ads may say, your chances of finding Captain Kidd's buried treasure are slim. With some patience and practice, however, you WILL find innumerable small treasures and interesting artifacts and relics. Finding these involves work, dirty fingernails and knees, especially if you're searching for gold. Coins and lost jewelry will not pop out of the ground into your pocket, but for true enthusiasts, the rewards are worthwhile.
Don't believe all the hype you see on detector ads, nor everything you hear from salespeople or read in “treasure hunting” magazines. They are pushing an unrealistic dream to sell you a machine or subscription. Sure, these finds happen, but they are so rare as to be nonexistent. The average detector operator will find coins, gold and silver jewelry and some very interesting historical relics, but few will find a pot full of Spanish doubloons. Too many people new to the hobby are looking for the big score. Not gonna happen, McGee! But this wrong attitude keeps the detector company presidents in BMWs, and puts a lot of used machines on eBay or yard sales.
A few years ago an ad on late-night TV claimed: “Know what you've found before you dig it up!” Nonsense. Even the most advanced and expensive machines are only giving you their best guess what is beneath your coil. Most modern detectors have a digital readout with a number corresponding to the conductivity of the target. Every brand has its own number system, so 35 on one may equal 70 on another. You have to be familiar with your machine, and the only way to know for sure is to dig.
My Trusty MXT
This is the display of my trusty MXT. The numbers below the LCD are conductivity readings and will appear on the screen depending on the target. The other information below this blue line show in what range of conductivity certain items typically reside. They don't show what your find is, they show what it COULD be.
Once while searching a park, a policeman approached me. He wasn't interested in arresting me, but only to know if my detector could find a coin at sixty feet deep. Yes, SIXTY FEET. He had seen a TV show claiming a man in Mexico had found a coin that deep with a metal detector. I am embarrassed to say, I could not help laughing in the man's face.
I told him a very advanced detector may find a buried Buick at ten feet, but NO normal VLF machine will penetrate to sixty feet. Most finds will be four to six inches maximum. I have found old coins and relics as deep as fourteen inches, but they are rare. Anything beyond that depth I wouldn't want to dig, anyway.
2. Buying the Wrong Detector
The best detector is the one that works best for your experience level, how often you intend to use it, where you want to search and what are your intended targets. For the first month or two, you can plan on being frustrated with ANY detector. Buying a machine for which you are unsuited makes it worse.
Keep in mind, all metal detectors do the same thing, they detect metal. A low-end detector will make a beep, chirp or grunt when metal comes under its coil, like all the others. Some may not have a headphone jack, and many have an analog dial with a needle showing the conductivity of the target. The cheapest detectors are prone to noise, electrical interference and ground mineralization. Most have no ground balance or pinpoint functions and only one available coil. Most of these have a depth range from the surface to four inches. These are toys, but they work in clean ground with little interference. Most of their coils are not waterproof. Low-end machines cost from $50 to around $180.
Mid-range units cost from $200 to about $400, and all are adequate for most treasure hunters. The $200 machines of today have technology as good as or better than the high-end of a decade ago. All have a headphone jack and internal speaker, ground balance, pinpoint function, and an assortment of available coils. All major manufacturers make mid-range units that are great. Within this range, you can buy entry detectors for most uses, whether you're hunting trashy parks, desert hillsides, beaches, etc. Once you decide your primary hunting locale, look for a machine with the most useful frequency and options. These are the least frustrating units for beginners.
High range VLF (Very Low Frequency) detectors cost from $400 to $2500 or more. The more bells and whistles, the higher the price. Here you are paying for more sensitivity, better ground balance, ability to handle beach salt, better discrimination, and a dozen other things depending on brand. Most of these things you can do without. More depth is good if you're hunting deep relics in very old sites or battlefields, and better ability to handle mineralization is essential if you're searching wet salt-water beaches. Pulse Induction and underwater detectors for scuba divers or snorkelers fall in this high range as well.
It all depends on what you want to do, but a good general-purpose mid-range VLF unit will work fine for most people entering the hobby.
3. Not Reading the Manual . . . Several Times
Included inside the box with every new metal detector is a manual of one sort or other. Along with manufacturer's information and warranty is a short introduction to your new machine. You will learn how to assemble and test it, how to change batteries, change coils, and where all the controls are located.
Proper use of controls is paramount to success with the machine, so learn it well. Learn what the different sounds mean and the numbers on any digital display. Learn the recommended sweep speed, coil height and special settings for various situations. This is very important, so study the manual well. Now it's time for practice and getting to know your new companion.
4. Not Learning the Machine's “Language” and Capabilities
Using a metal detector is a two-way conversation. You give it instructions by the settings you program into the machine. In return it talks to you by sounds and digital readouts. You will learn soon that sounds are far more important than numbers on a digital screen. You must listen to every sound and learn what the machine is telling you. Every sound means something.
Many superb metal detectors do not even have screens or analog dials. They operate by sound alone. At first, you will be tied to the LCD screen, but soon you will come to appreciate the nuances of sound. Sounds can tell you if you have a treasure or trash, a coin or aluminum can, iron or silver. But it CAN'T tell you if the target is gold. For that, you need to dig everything.
Detector sounds are akin to the old telegraph's “dits” and “dahhs”. Coins make a short sharp “dit” sound as your coil moves over it. Most garbage makes a long drawn-out “dahh”. The longer the sound, the less likely you have a coin or a gold ring. A very long sound is usually trash unless you're searching an old site. Then it could be a fantastic relic. These are things you can learn only by experience.
The volume of sound is important. A loud screeching blare usually means a target close to the surface, large, and almost certainly garbage. It could also mean something very large but deeper. There's a saying among treasure hunters that iron screams, gold whispers. I've never had a gold ring scream at me, but lots of iron has done so. Aluminum is even worse. Dig all the “whispering” dits.
Depth is important as well. A large deep item can sound like a small item closer to the coil. Thus an aluminum can at fifteen inches can sound like a silver coin at two.
Frequency is most important of all. I use a White's MXT for most of my hunts because I'm familiar with its language, so I'll use that as an example. My MXT has three primary sounds, low, medium and high. Iron will give a low-pitched sound, sometimes like a grunt. Aluminum and lead higher but no longer a grunt. Zinc and copper cents give a medium sound, and silver the highest of all.
Over the years I've learned there are slight differences in pitch even within the same low, medium or high range. A zinc cent has a different sound from a bronze cent, and a silver coin sounds different from a deep aluminum can. The frequency of sound is where the search for gold becomes a problem. Gold conductivity is similar to aluminum, so a gold ring will sound like a piece of aluminum of equal size. Caps from quart beer bottles will drive you nuts. To find gold, you have to dig a lot of aluminum.
Listen for masking. A ragged confused sound means there's more than one item under the coil. Sometimes a silver coin will be next to or under a piece of iron, thus confusing the machine. This is where a small coil is invaluable. A little four or five inch coil can separate much of the trash from the good signals.
Large coils have their place, too. They have a much greater depth capability than little coils, and they can cover a lot more area in less time. They are great for non-trashy parks and athletic fields.
5. Not Being Prepared
Being prepared means having with you all the things you will need for a successful hunt. This includes a full set of extra batteries, a bag for your finds, another for the garbage, a four-inch thin flat screwdriver and a pinpointer (optional).
If I'm going to search a city park, the screwdriver is my only digging tool. It's doesn't draw attention, and I use it as a probe. Most everything I wish to find in a park will be within four inches of the surface, so this tool is ideal for probing into the soil. Once my probe finds the item, it can then be flipped out of the soil. This tool can make larger holes but never large enough to get you into trouble with park authorities.
Yes, you need a bag for the garbage, and never leave your found junk lying around. It is unsightly, dangerous to others and bad for the environment. And never EVER walk onto park turf carrying a full sized shovel. It's the quickest way to get booted from the park and told not to return. This is common sense, but I've seen a few people do that. Unfortunately, some used the shovel before being caught.
6. Asking Permission
This flies in the face of most advice you will find on the internet and treasure hunting magazines, but long experience and many turn-downs later I find it's much easier to ask forgiveness than permission. I'm not advocating trespassing. If you want to search private property, you need to ask permission, but usually, you will not get it. That depends on the location.
It's easy to get permission to hunt an abandoned lot or the woods of a farm, however, few people will let a total stranger come dig up their front yard. I've had a couple people say it's ok to dig on their property, but only if they are present, and everything I find belongs to them. It's not worth the effort. There are exceptions. Some people know a ring has been lost in the yard, and they don't care about anything else you find. Or some may just want the junk cleaned out of the dirt in the yard.
Asking permission of a governmental agency to hunt land in their jurisdiction is courting an automatic “No”. I had that experience recently. I asked the mayor's office for permission to hunt in a park and around some old buildings. I offered to remove all unsightly and dangerous trash, and to donate to the local museum any historical artifacts I find. The secretary asked for a formal request stating what I wanted to do and where. I took the request to the office the next day and presented it to the mayor. He took about five seconds to give me a “No”. No explanations, no nothing. Just “No”. These requests are a nuisance to the bureaucrats, and it's better just to not deal with them.
Unless you're hunting on an historical site or federal property, you won't be arrested for being there, so the best course is to search until someone with authority stops you. I'm referring mostly to parks. There are places and circumstances where you MAY be arrested, so it's best to learn what those are in your area.
7. Taking Other People's Advice
No matter where you hunt, there will always be people who think they know how to do it better than you. You're walking too slow, or too fast. You're hunting in the wrong place. You need a different brand of detector, and a dozen other things. The most common advice is, this place is hunted out; there's nothing here.
A hunting buddy and I once searched an old hotel site. The building was gone, and nothing remained except an empty lot. We were finding nothing when a car stopped. The driver was more than happy to tell us that the place had been searched at least a hundred times by as many people, so there's nothing here. We thanked him for his advice, and he left.
Standing in the middle of the lot we thought about what he had said. For sure we were finding nothing, so maybe he was right. Then my friend had a brainstorm. When the hotel was standing, the place we were hunting was UNDER the building. Of course, there's nothing there! Anything lost would have been near the entrances, or around the building, not under it. We took our search to the perimeter hoping for better luck. This turned out to be one of our best sites. We found a Barber quarter, several Barber dimes, several Mercury dimes, at least ten buffalo nickels and a lot of old pennies.
8. Using Bad Technique
A big mistake most new hobbyists make is moving too fast over the ground. Think of your detector as a spray paint wand, and you're painting the ground with electromagnetic flux. You need to overlap all your strokes to cover the area properly.
Going too fast makes you miss the biggest portion of the path, thus missing most of the available targets. If you're in a forty-acre park, you don't have to cover the whole forty acres in one day. A tenth of one acre covered well is better than forty acres covered in a hit-or-miss manner. Trust me, it will be mostly “miss”.
Below is a crude drawing of the typical pattern made when moving too fast. The white area is ground not searched.
9. Digging Too Close to the Target
This can be heartbreaking, and I cringe thinking about all the once valuable coins and relics ruined by careless digging.
I was digging with a friend in Honduras when he got a good coin signal. He pin-pointed it with his detector and got ready to dig. Well, the machine did a great job of showing the location of the coin, and my buddy did a great job with his aim, bringing his hand-pick down right on top of one of the rarest tokens in existence. A 1910 issue of only 100 minted, and only two known to still exist. We found a third, but which now has a ghastly nick in its outer ring. All of any value it may have had disappeared in one stroke. When we realized what we had, I felt ill.
10. Leaving the Site Too Soon
Every site has targets, and most have targets worth digging. It's your job to find and liberate them from the ground. Impatience has left untold valuable items languishing in the earth. Jumping from site to site only wastes time and gasoline. Any site deserves two to three hours search time before moving on.
11. Not Searching the Same Site Again
There's one place I searched fifty times or more over the years. It's also the site where I've made my most cherished finds. I consider myself a careful hunter but I keep coming back to a lot of my old haunts, and I always find something good each time.
12. Using Discrimination
All modern detectors have a discrimination function. I suppose it has its place, but I don't recommend it. Discrimination prevents the machine from seeing certain conductivity bands, thus allowing the operator to not be bothered with signals from iron, aluminum or whatever he/she chooses. Unfortunately, eliminating iron and aluminum also eliminates gold. Using discrimination has left more gold in the ground than all other operating errors combined.
If you want to find gold, turn off discrimination, or go to “All Metal” mode which does the same thing. Finding gold jewelry is back-breaking work, dirty and frustrating, but when you have an elusive piece of it in your hand it all seems worth the effort. If you learn your detector's language well, it will be far easier to cope with the lack of discrimination.
13. Leaving Unfilled Holes
This is the unpardonable sin of metal detecting, and it happens all too frequently. I once went to a neighborhood park to search near a soccer field. A man, whom I later learned was a coach, saw me with my detector and came running and screaming at me. He asked what I'm doing digging holes in the field. I showed him my little screwdriver and told him I can't dig much with this. He apologized but was still irate, which I can understand. I asked to see the holes. I was aghast.
There were six or eight huge holes 12 to 18 inches deep, evidently dug with a shovel, all over the playing area. Dirt was everywhere. I told the coach, for the sake of the hobby I will fill the holes though I'm in no way guilty of the crime. Words can't express how much I detest people who are too lazy to fill their own holes. There's no excuse for that, and it's the number one reason for many parks being posted off-limits to metal detectors.
If you must dig deep in a park, learn the art of plugging the turf. And it is an art. There are even special tools for this, and if done right leaves little to no evidence you were ever there. Instructions are available on the internet, and where to buy the tools. But leave your shovel at home.
Tips for Dealing With People
When searching in populated areas there will always be people watching. People are curious, especially kids. I like to encourage kids and not give them a negative impression of metal detecting. I sometimes let them dig a few pennies in a sandlot, and they are always thrilled at finding a buried treasure. Adults, however, can be another story.
Most people are nice and friendly, but a lot of the public look on anyone with a metal detector as a weirdo or a homeless person looking for change to buy a bottle of wine. Many people have never seen a metal detector and don't know how it works. Once in my favorite park I was approached by two policemen who said they were called by concerned parents. The parents thought the detector was radioactive and might harm their kids. Both I and the police had a good laugh about that, but since they were called, they had to investigate.
Another time I was hunting near a railroad track. Two sheriff's deputies came screeching in with red and blue lights flashing. They said someone had reported me spiking the rails on the tracks. I was rather bewildered because I did not understand what that meant. They looked around, found no evidence of wrongdoing, and asked me what I'm doing there.
It was the site of an old railroad terminal from the late 1800s, I told them, and I'm looking for relics and maybe an old coin or two. They told me the same thing, that when called they have to come look. They were very nice, apologized for bothering me, and left.
What's in My Junk Bag
I always carry a bag for any trash I dig up, and it always has junk in it. even if I have to bring it from home. That may sound strange, but it has saved me from the ire of park authorities a few times. Once I was hunting an old site that was being made into a new city park. A lady park ranger came to tell me I can't dig holes in the park. I showed her my screwdriver and invited her to look around for holes, which she did but found none. She asked what I'm doing there and told me metal detecting was not allowed. I told her I'm looking for old relics, and I'm also removing dangerous and toxic junk from the ground. I
reached into my bag and pulled out large pieces of lead, lead pipe, twisted corroded pieces of copper and rusty iron. I also showed her rusty nails and a push knife I had found in a sand lot where kids play. She was astonished and looked at the junk for a few minutes. Then she said I was welcome to search here anytime as long as I remove such things. Since that time I always carry my own toxic junk just in case.
Metal detecting is a fun, relaxing and educational hobby, but it must be entered for the right reasons, and done in the right manner. It is not a way get rich, but it has its own rich rewards. If you get into this hobby, you must first decide what you want out of it. If history is your interest, or a great outdoor and fresh air activity, then it may be for you.
Next, you need to do research to decide what machine suits you best, and how much you want to spend. Expect frustrations, especially in the beginning, but the results can be a lifelong passion.
Michael Moore from US on July 20, 2019:
As for me, there are two main wrong reasons:
1) People don't read anything about the metal detector that they choose
There are a lot of metal detector reviews by experienced detectorists in the internet, just choose a website like https://detecthistory.com/ and start reading them.
2) Not enough information about the search area where they start digg
Stevefrog on December 01, 2018:
Regarding item #6, I strongly suggest using the internet to determine whether a municipality or park district has any particular rules regarding metal detecting. Also, the feds have their own rules; for example: no detecting at all in national parks and monuments.