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The Best Metal Detectors, According to Real-Life Treasure Hunters

Photo: Detectorists, BBC

For most of us, the fantasy of finding buried treasure faded away along with other childhood passions, like making it into the Guinness World Records for building the largest pillow fort known to man. But it doesn’t have to. With the right metal detector, a little patience, and some knowledge of history, anyone can dig up centuries-old jewelry and long-lost coins (or at least have a better chance of finding a lost earring in the grass). Of course, some locations are better suited for metal detecting than others. “There is a very big difference between detecting in Europe and detecting in the United States,” says Branko Barisic, a Croatian detectorist (yes, that is the actual term for it) who posts about his finds, including a huge Roman coin depicting Alexander Severus on his Instagram page Metal Detecting Croatia. “Most of the coins I see people find with detectors in America are a few hundred years old, but in Europe, it’s common to find Roman coins that are 2,000 years old,” he says.

That’s not to say that there’s no cool stuff to uncover stateside, too. Brad Martin of Green Mountain Metal Detecting has a YouTube channel highlighting some of his best finds, including some Spanish gold in the mountains of Vermont. The choice of tools, he says, is important. Someone searching for gold jewelry on a saltwater beach should choose a different machine than someone searching for old coins in a park. “My advice is to visit a local hobby shop and have a chat, they will know what’s best for your area.” Before you do that, and to help get you acquainted with the top metal detectors on the market right now (some of which can handle all types of terrain), we asked Barisic, Martin, and five other experienced detectorists from the United States and Europe about the metal detectors they started out using and what they use now. They also suggested other gear you’ll need to get your treasure out of the dirt and home safely.

According to Martin, the more expensive the machine, the more it can discriminate between trash and treasure. While you shouldn’t spend thousands on your first metal detector, you don’t want to go too cheap either. Martin says “spending more than $150 from well-known brands like Garrett, XP, Minelab, and Fisher will save a lot of time and disappointment in the field.” For Barisic, the location is even more important than the fanciness of your detector. “In great locations, you can find amazing things with a cheap metal detector, but in a bad location, even with the best detector in the world, you’ll find nothing.” Both Chambers and Martin say the best spots are those where the ground has remained relatively undisturbed for a long period of time. “Crop fields are plowed and turned, making some items too deep to detect,” says Martin. Many detectorists look at old maps to find the ruins of old homes or even ask permission to look for treasure at old houses about to be demolished. The farm where Chambers does a lot of her detecting is a history hot spot and has only been plowed in the last 30 years. It used to be an aristocratic deer park visited by Royals, Dukes, and Earls, and before that, it was next to a prominent Roman road, with other Roman villas and settlements nearby.

Barisic started his own detecting career with a Garrett Ace 250, which he says isn’t too complicated or heavy to carry. “For the money, it’s great because it has notch discrimination” — a function that allows you to choose which types of metals to target — “five search modes, and a host of other features,” he says. This model has a search coil that is waterproof to a depth of nine inches, which, according to Connecticut-based detectorist Jessie Thompson, who has been passionate about metal detecting since he was 14 years old, makes it great for practicing on sandy beaches. If your budget doesn’t accommodate the 250, the Garrett Ace 150 has a lot of the same features for a slightly lower price.

According to George Streeter, a detectorist with over 50 years of experience who hosts annual group hunts in New Hampshire and underwater hunts in the Caribbean, the Minelab Vanquish 440 has everything a beginner could need. It’s lightweight and collapsible, and it uses multifrequency technology, allowing you to search for silver, gold, jewelry, and more. It gives you both I.D. and depth readings to spare you the time and heartache of digging deep only to end up with nails. And like the Garrett Ace, it has a waterproof search coil (submersible up to three feet) so you can explore beaches, streams, and river beds.

Best metal detector for intermediate and expert level hunters

Chambers, Kropiwiec, and Streeter are all fans of the Minelab Equinox 800. Streeter describes the interface as intuitive and says it can detect deeper and has more options than the Garrett Ace and the Minelab Vanquish. It uses Minelab’s multifrequency technology for supersensitive detection and lets you choose from four detecting modes (Park, Field, Beach, Gold). It has a battery life of up to 12 hours, is waterproof up to ten feet, and, depending on which package you buy, can also come with wireless headphones (to help you hear the search tones without ambient distraction) and a pinpointer to help you find your target close up and through mud.

Best metal detector for finding small items

Three of the experts we spoke to — Martin, Barisic, and Kropiwiec — love this metal detector for its high frequency, which allows for greater sensitivity to small items and items with low conductivity, like alloyed or very thin pieces of jewelry. According to Barisic, who recently switched to using the XP Deus, it’s more precise and can detect items at a much deeper range than his previous Garrett AT Max. And Kropiwiec says the Deus will last a long time and retain its value. It’s an expert-level metal detector with tons of customizable functions that can be used on any terrain, including search modes for wet sand, dry sand, relic, and coin hunting. It has a battery life of up to 27 hours and is fully waterproof. Plus, the company updates its software often and offers free downloadable software upgrades for life.

$2,499

Thompson has used the Minelab CTX 3030 throughout the Northeast and on detecting trips to England. “Minelab is a manufacturer of military-grade metal detectors on battlefields, and they’ve been making metal detectors for quite a while,” he says. He considers the CTX 3030 to be one of the deepest detectors on the market and says he has used it to find Roman brooches, Spanish silver reales coins, gold rings, necklaces, bracelets, and much more. Like the XP Deus, this metal detector has tons of customizable settings and is fully waterproof up to ten feet. It has a full-color LCD screen that lets you see multiple objects underground at once so you can discriminate the good stuff from the junk. And it comes with wireless headphones and a built-in wireless speaker you can clip to your belt.

Best metal detector for kids

If you’ve got a kid who’s dying to start digging for treasure, Martin recommends getting them the Minelab Go-Find 66. It’s powerful, lightweight, and collapsible, and it syncs to your smartphone with an app that can help you ID your finds. Because the search coil is waterproof, kids can get used to digging in loose sand on the beach before moving on to more difficult terrain.

Other gear you’ll need

All of the experts we spoke to said that, in addition to a metal detector, you will need a pinpointer to help locate your treasure once you start digging. Thompson likens it to a smaller version of a metal detector that helps keep him from digging unnecessarily big and messy holes. “You want to dig what looks kind of like a trap door. Basically, you cut three sides, and you tilt the dirt over. That way, when you put everything back in, it’s like you never were there,” he says. Both he and Dominique Ivy, a detectorist in the Northeast, use White’s Electronics TRX Bullseye Waterproof Pin-Pointer. Unfortunately, that particular model is sold out everywhere online at the moment, but Martin recommends this one from XP.

You’ll also need a good shovel for digging. This one, which comes recommended by both Martin and Thompson, has a serrated edge for slicing sod and roots.

Amber Glass Spray Bottles
$5 for 2
$5 for 2

Because coins and other relics can be very fragile, Chambers and Martin carry a small spray bottle full of water in their packs to gently remove dirt and debris without harming their finds.

Martin also recommends getting yourself a jeweler’s loupe to help you identify small treasures.

You’ll need a safe place to carry the stuff you find. For Martin, that’s a foam-lined box like this one that will cradle your precious doubloons until you get back home.

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The Best Metal Detectors, According to Experts