Skip to main content

How to Use a Metal Detector to Make Money and Find Treasure

I've been gold prospecting for 11 years, mainly in the Bradshaw Mountains in Yavapai County, Arizona, where I found over 8 grams of placer.

My ACE250 by Garrett—a good coin shooter for those beginning the hunt.

My ACE250 by Garrett—a good coin shooter for those beginning the hunt.

Basics of Metal Detection

Metal detecting is one of those things a person usually dreams about while not really picturing themselves as participants. Whether it is the call of the wild, gold fever, antiquities hunting, coin shooting, or the lure of any treasure, metal detecting has become one of America's favorite pastimes. You may have given it thought, but usually, there is a critical moment when the decision is made to take the leap and purchase a metal detector.

For me, it was a search for a pastime in retirement that would give me good exercise, interesting surroundings, and the chance to discover something unusual. I had panned for gold in a club, but watching other members shooting for nuggets was too much to ignore. They were having so much fun! That drove me from the edge of indecision. There isn't anything much more exciting than a friend showing you a little gold nugget he discovered in some gravel near a bend in a stream.

The first thing you need to do is talk to some friends that might have metal detectors. Usually, they can give you a pretty good assessment of several detectors since many of them shopped before purchasing. If you don't know anybody, search the internet. is a good place to start that has good recommendations. Local hunters might have an idea of what detectors work best in your area: Here's a list of treasure hunting clubs by state.

What Detector to Buy

You can buy a really cheap detector, but the less the detector can discriminate between metals, and the shallower the detector "sees," the more frustration you will experience. For being able to experience the joy of metal detecting and minimize frustration, I would recommend metal detectors for sale in the $160–$300 range based on what instruments are included.

Some names in this category are the Garrett 250 metal detector (which I own), Whites Metal Detector Prizm II, Minelab Muscateer, and the Bounty Hunter Tracker IV metal detector. While you're shopping, if you bump into another model in the range that has a feature you like, by all means, go for it. There is a "whopper" of a bunch of models and brands out there. You can also look for used metal detectors and expect to pay around 50%–75% of the new price, depending on the condition.

"Locating unexploded shells on the battlefield." As usual, war invites creativity.

"Locating unexploded shells on the battlefield." As usual, war invites creativity.

Where to Go

Finding really good area candidates to search sometimes takes a bit of work and research.

You need to get permission to search on private property. If there are posted instructions for land use, follow them. If it is posted that metal detecting is forbidden, don't metal detect. Most areas with recreational equipment in the sand, like school yards, are OK. Park areas where there are picnic tables are great areas to search. Parking lots are another good place, as well as beaches. Just make sure you obey posted instructions.

Technique in Metal Detecting

Let's begin with some basic ideas about technique in metal detecting.

At one end of your metal detector is a coil. This is what finds metal targets you are searching for. The coils are usually circular or elliptical in shape. Once you turn the power on, you start to "wave" back and forth over the ground you are searching. When I say wave, I mean passing the detector back and forth across an area.

It is important that you keep your detector coil 2" above the surface of the ground. When you pass back and forth (that is, left to right), there is a tendency at first not to move your whole arm but to pivot back and forth by your shoulder. When you do this, the coil raises up at the end of each swing—this results in the coil being off the ground more than 2" at the end of each pass. You will miss possible targets in your search area if you do this. You need to keep the coil 2" above the surface and level, and move your arm so that those 2" are maintained throughout your swing.

For a good example, suppose you have an idea that there could be coins near a grandstand that once stood where you are searching. If your arm is swinging up at the end of each pass, you will not cover a lot of good area where great finds could be. It would be a pity to miss something just because of that.

Most metal detectors have a bell sound that goes off when you have passed over a metal object. You swing back and forth repeatedly, making your swings somewhat smaller as you pinpoint the target. When you are getting a good signal and are right on top of something, your target will be located under the center of the coil. Mark the spot with a spade, trowel, hand rake, etc.

They tell you to dig an oval cut, mostly 2" to 4" deep, and lift the sod up and over, leaving it connected at one end. Find your target and replace the "divot". Tamp it down slightly with your foot so that it cannot be raised easily by foot traffic or machine.

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Toughnickel

Now, I know that if you do not live in the South or New England area, the chances are that you cannot just push a spade in the ground and pull up a good-sized piece of sod. I come from Arizona, for example, and here you might be able to lift a divot of sod on a prepared golf course or a park, but not out in the desert. Most of the ground seems like concrete. You have to push the spade in and then repeatedly dig out the hole, putting your dirt in a pile near the hole. Just make sure you put the dirt back and tamp it down when you have found your fortune.

If you are going for objects deeper than 4" (the Garrett Ace 250 can find stuff 8" down), you may want to use a big shovel. In that case, you pile your dirt near the hole and wave your detector over it. If the metal detector rings, you know your target is in the pile of dirt. You then usually split the pile in half and wave the two smaller piles. When your bell goes off, you know which pile it is in. Repeat this until you find your target. If the bell does not ring over the pile (piles) of dirt, keep digging. Wave your hole, and you will hear it ring again. Sometimes you can get a false signal—your detector rings, and then after some digging, it does not ring again. Perhaps there was some metal in a rock, or perhaps it was an anomaly (unexplained reason). I have found that in practice, this does not happen very often, but it can happen. Continue to search your area until you get a new signal. Most targets are only a few inches beneath your coil.

Things to Bring

Your coil is relatively expensive. They come in small, medium, and large sizes. You get one when you initially purchase your metal detector. But remember, the coil is sensitive and can be broken. If you are swinging the arm of your detector and hit a rock by mistake, you could break or chip the coil.

One of the first things you want to buy when you have your metal detector is a cover for your coil to protect it from damage. The cover fits tightly over the coil and is made of some kind of plastic that provides good protection. I have accidentally bounced my coil off of rocks or stones and have yet to damage the coil. Of course, you look ahead at your target area and are generally aware of what is there, but sometimes you are focusing so much on the search that you forget, or hit something you did not see in the beginning, even though you are treating your machine with respect. Get a guard; it is worth all the money you will pay. Most covers run from $10 to $20. They fit tight, so make sure your coil is clean and snap it on. I haven't taken my cover off since the day I put it on.

If you do not like the idea of other people hearing your bell go off, all metal detectors (that I know of) have a place where a jack for earphones can be inserted. The headphones make you less conspicuous when people are around. You can adjust the volume to your liking. Nobody likes to draw attention to themselves, and after all, a lot of us enjoy the peace and serenity of being outdoors in nature. Solitude is part of the journey. I was able to adapt a pair of headphones I already had, but you can buy accessories, including headphones, at mining supply stores, and even big box stores that sell electronics. There are a number of treasure hunting stores that sell metal detectors and all kinds of supplies.

Bring a plastic bag with you. Anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of what you find can be trash. It's just part of the beast. Believe me, the 20 to 40 percent of your finds that are desirable finds are worth it. Put the trash in the plastic bag and dispose of it in trash containers. It is good for the environment and will be doing a service for the next hunter who scans the area. Courtesy is contagious. I have a little pouch that fits on my belt that I can unzip and put coins or other finds in.

Code of ethics

Code of ethics


So what have I found? Well, I've found a lot of coins. None of them have been rare, but they were fun to find, nevertheless. Some people refer to pennies as nuisance targets—I guess they just want silver coins. But as for me, I'll take all the pennies I can find! I have found a silver ring at a park, a couple of Army buttons from the 19th century in small washes where I suspect soldiers once washed their clothes, one small gold nugget (in this case, my Garrett became a gold metal detector!) on a claim owned by our treasure hunting club, matchbox cars, metal toy soldiers, bullets, and many other things.

Treasure detecting will easily become one of your favorite activities. You will meet many interesting people, discover things about the area you live in that you never knew, and you'll find interesting resources for exploring new areas. Go metal detecting. You won't regret it!

A Great 2020 Guide for the Frugal Prospector

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: My Garrett Ace 400 metal detector doesn't seem to be working, what can I do?

Answer: Here is a URL for the manual. See the troubleshooting tips section.

Here is the phone number of Garrett Electronics, Inc. - Telephone: (972) 494-6151 .

There are a number of issues it could be since you apparently aren't getting a response from your machine. I wish you luck. I have a less expensive model - yours should detect at deeper depths.

© 2010 John R Wilsdon


Avinash Khatri KC on August 10, 2014:

It contain a useful and important information on metal detector. Metal detector is really useful in our day to day life.

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on June 22, 2012:

What a great story. “It’s just one individual but hooray for him,” Orr said. My sentiments too. Thanks.

Silva Hayes from Spicewood, Texas on June 21, 2012:

Hi again, John. You might be interested in this news article from Austin, Texas. Go to Google and type in "homeless man 40 gold Krugerrands."

John R Wilsdon (author) from Superior, Arizona on June 21, 2012:

Yep. I am not fortunate enough to afford a $7000 metal detector - mine cost about $250. But what he is doing is getting concentrate (the heaviest elements in the dirt) and taking it home to pan - that bright shiny gold is his reward. My detector will not pick up flake, perhaps his is so sensitive it can. If it can, great for him! Thanks for the comment.

Chuck Bluestein from Morristown, AZ, USA on June 20, 2012:

A neighbor of mine sells metal detectors for $7,000. He takes it into a wash (dry river) and uses it to get some dirt. He brings the dirt back and puts it through a sifter. Then he pans what is left and he gets little pieces of gold.

Silva Hayes from Spicewood, Texas on January 29, 2012:

Loaded with useful information. I have wanted a metal detector for years and now I am going to buy one. I'm doing my research right now. Thanks! Voted Up, Useful and Interesting.

Related Articles