Metal Detecting for Beginners: Patience and Profit


As a kid, the majority of my tenth and eleventh years were spent poring over treasure hunting magazines. I was a budding archeologist, coin collector, historian, and ghost-town adventurer wrapped into one junior-sized Indiana Jones. When I realized there was a device available that could turn any backyard into a potential dig site, I had to have one. I honed in on my parents’ own proclivities toward antiquing, collecting, and exploring to make my case. I petitioned them for a metal detector like most other kids my age begged for a new bike or skateboard. (See also: Reselling Antiques: The Five Principles of Power Picking)

Since my record of past requests was fairly modest and I tended to take very good care of my things, the folks indulged me. I was the proud owner of a brand new Garrett Groundhog detector by the time I was 12. Fast forward 30 years and I’m still detecting — still finding small treasures and great joy in this curious pastime.

Metal detecting is often misunderstood by the general public. It’s typically a solitary activity that most people look upon with a mix of curiosity and comedy. We’re a varied bunch, but we generally fall into four broad groups: the mineral hunter, the relic hunter, the beachcomber, and the coin shooter. Mineral hunters use their detectors to “mine” gold or locate other valuable minerals based on local geography. Relic hunters look for artifacts, not necessarily coins or jewelry (think Civil War enthusiasts looking for Confederate belt buckles or musket balls). Beachcombers are looking for anything of value — modern coins, jewelry, etc. Coin shooters focus on older, more valuable U.S. coinage. Dimes and quarters produced before 1965 contain silver, while the same coins produced after 1964 are “clad” (comprised of baser metals like zinc and copper). But whatever category a detectorist falls within, he’s a treasure hunter through-and-through. As hobbies go, there are few others that can combine sunshine, fresh air, and moderate exercise with a dash of adventure and the potential for profit.

Yes, metal detecting can be profitable, but that profit is driven by research, networking, common sense, dedication, and — of course — a little luck. For most detectorists, every hour working a site is the result of 3-4 hours of research and scouting.

As a coin shooter, I look for clues all around me to determine where people once gathered because — much like today — where people go, coins get lost. I know that the biggest tree in the old city park was probably where most folks gathered on a hot summer day. I know the open field next to the pre-war schoolhouse was most likely the baseball field or playground. Like all old coin hunters, I read the remnants of stone foundations like fortune tellers read tea leaves.

And then I wait. Metal detecting is an exercise in patience and persistence. Like most things in life, the rewards are hard won. Sites get hit by other hunters and become tapped out, remote areas get overgrown, and I’m always fighting the weather. But even on perfect days with the freshest location, successful detecting takes a zen-like calmness and steely determination. Hours might go by with no finds, junk finds, or just a few average finds (Wheat Pennies, post-1964 clad coins, etc). On particularly rough hunts, it seems like I’m in the business of professionally recovering rusty bottle caps and old nails.

But then there are those rare moments — unmatched by few things in modern life — when I pull something of real value out of the dirt. That gleam of a silver Mercury Dime (1916-1945) or better yet, a Barber Quarter (1892-1916) snaps me out of my stupor and reminds me why I devoted two hours finding the exact location of this old schoolyard and spent 45 minutes in the car to get here. I’m immediately time-warped to the day that coin was lost, and I unearth it with something close to reverence. On particularly good days, I might pull two or three of these "silvers" from their hiding places. Once, last summer, after hearing my detector’s familiar beep, I found a perfect 1865 silver dime just lying in the grass — no digging required. Those are the moments that keep all detectorists going.

For beginners, information is everything. A great online resource is This site is filled with useful tips, tutorials, and motivational stories from other treasure hunters. I’ve found that the most successful detecting is driven by three primary considerations: your knowledge/research, your equipment, and your understanding of detecting “etiquette.” Solid research can compensate for a lower-grade detector, but even the best detector won’t find treasure where there is none. For a mid-range machine, expect to pay $800 new, but used detectors can be scored on Craiglist or in the classifieds for $400-$600. Focus on machines that have good “discrimination” options (settings that allow the machine to reject lower-grade junk metals) and depth readings (letting you know how far down your target is). Physically try out any machine before you buy; it’s important to understand how it fits your body and if the weight is appropriate for your frame and size.

Detecting etiquette deserves special mention because it affects not only your safety, but the image of the entire hobby. Be sure to get permission before detecting on private property. Property owners will typically be more motivated if you take a collaborative approach and offer to share what you find. If you’re interested in detecting at historic sites or protected public sites, permission will also be necessary — start by checking around at City Hall. Once you have permission, take a very controlled approach when digging. Any lawns that end up looking like a scene from Caddyshack will guarantee that no detectorist is granted permission again. A common dig method is to first pinpoint your target, then dig a plug 7-8 inches in diameter around it, leaving a small portion of the sod attached on one side. This creates a sort of “hinge” that you can pull up and replace easily once you’ve retrieved the find. This approach also allows the grass to recover and leaves the area more aesthetically intact.

Once you’ve got the hang of it and established a rapport with your machine, the finds will come. Depending on your research and the time you can devote to hunting, the profits will come too. Silver is currently selling for just over $39 per ounce and a pre-1964 Washington quarter is worth about $7 today. I’m sure by strict accounting, there are much more profitable ventures. Sure, the hours of research, the travel, the machine itself can eventually pay off, but these must all be fueled by something more than a profit motive. Without a love of history, without a true desire to jump off the modern-day treadmill for awhile, without that essential curiosity, detecting can often seem more tedious than profitable. But if you can see the larger picture and use detecting as a catalyst to become an armchair historian, amateur archeologist, numismatist, or explorer, the profits are limitless. Happy hunting!

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Meg Favreau's picture

Oh man, I always wanted a metal detector growing up. (Likewise, I was a wannabe archeologist.) My house was on old farmland, and I found the area where the previous residents had tossed their trash -- a pit of Ponds cold cream jars, tiny green asprin bottles, and so on. Most of the finds were shattered, but we did pull out a few gorgeous, in-tact bottles.

Does anybody else have metal detecting stories, or similar stories about finding treasures? Have you wanted to try it?

Kentin Waits's picture

Meg, I think we had very similar childhoods. I grew up near a small dump from the late 1800's and early 1900's. "Trash" back then was practically treasure by the 1970's and 80's. I loved digging around and seeing what I could uncover.

Guest's picture

I really don't think that metal detecting is worth it unless you just have a lot of extra free time to look for it

Guest's picture

One of my best moments was finding a civil war era coat button. My older friend who is a much more experienced detector assured me he had thuroughly searched one site in Colorado that we knew was an old camp area, probably owtlaws who hid out there. It was fun to see the expression on his face when I showed him the coat button I found there and even more when I told him that it was sitting right on top of the ground. I didnt even pull out my shovel.......

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