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The Very Best Metal Detectors

Photo-Illustration: 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 world’s largest pillow fort. But that doesn’t have to be the case. 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.

Before you go hunting for artifacts, think about where you plan to dig and whether you’d be disturbing a site that should otherwise be preserved. “There are places that people can metal-detect and kind of scratch that itch to find things,” says Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia, noting that beaches are a good place to start. But he also explains that there is “a tense relationship between metal detectorists and archaeologists” stemming from incidents of theft and destruction of historic sites throughout Europe and the U.S. With that said, there are instances in which the two can cooperate. Reeves works with detectorists at Montpelier to recover and preserve the stories of the enslaved Americans who lived and labored on the 2,650-acre plantation. Before ever putting shovel to the ground, they carefully survey the land, looking for evidence of labor sites (usually a concentration of nails). If not properly handled and recorded, these sites and the stories of the people who labored there would be lost both to their descendants and to the world.

The general rule of thumb for using a metal detector — according to Reeves as well as Emily Chambers, a detectorist living in southwest England, and Artur Kropiwiec, a U.K.-based detectorist — is if you’re not digging on your own land, you need to make sure you have the landowner’s (or the state’s) permission first. When it comes to public land, laws differ from country to country and state to state. So it’s best to do a little research before you go treasure-hunting in your nearby park. And no matter where you’re digging, it’s a good idea to document and photograph where you find things, just in case.

We asked Reeves, Chambers, Kropiwiec, and five other experienced detectorists from the United States and Europe about the metal detectors they recommend.

Best overall | Best for beginners | Best intuitive metal detector | Best all-terrain | Best waterproof | Best for kids | Best large search coil | Best pinpointer

What we’re looking for

Price: According to Brad Martin of Green Mountain Metal Detecting, the more expensive the machine, the more it can discriminate between trash and treasure. So while you shouldn’t spend thousands on your first metal detector, you don’t want to go too cheap, either. Martin says that “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.” To help you get a quick sense of the cost of each item, we’ve included a dollar-sign ranking for each product below: $ for a metal detector that costs less than $500, $$ for one that costs between $501 and $1,000, and $$$ for a price tag of more $1,000.

Ground type: Wherever you plan to search for buried treasure, your metal detector should match that type of ground. According to Martin, 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.” If you don’t have a local hobby shop, this guide will help get you acquainted with the top metal detectors on the market right now, some of which can handle all types of terrain.

No matter the ground type, your dig location will be a major factor in what you find. Branko Barisic, a Croatian detectorist who posts about his discoveries on his Instagram page, Metal Detecting Croatia, including a huge Roman coin depicting Alexander Severus, says location is more important than the fanciness of your metal 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,” he says.

Both Martin and Chambers 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. Most metal detectors can detect objects between four and eight inches deep, but more advanced or specialized machines can find metal up to 18 inches or more below the surface. Many detectorists look at old maps to find the ruins of old homes or ask permission to look for treasure at old houses that are about to be demolished. There is also “a very big difference between detecting in Europe and detecting in the United States,” says Barisic. “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.” Still, there’s cool stuff to uncover Stateside, too.

Level of experience: As with any piece of technical equipment, metal detectors are available in a range of complexities designed for every level of expertise. There are metal detectors meant for everyone from absolute beginners to world-champion treasure-hunters and archaeologists. If you’re just starting out, you’ll want to stay away from machines made for experts, as they come with a pretty steep learning curve. That said, some detectors are more intuitive than others and can easily be used when you’re starting out as well as once you have grown into a more experienced detectorist.

Best overall metal detector

$ | Beach | Good for all levels

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 — plus “five search modes and a host of other features,” he says. This model has a search coil (the flat, round part at the bottom of the detector that does the searching) 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 200 has a lot of the same features for a slightly lower price.

Best metal detector for beginners

$ | Shallow water | Good for beginners 

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 ID readings (the type of metal it detects) 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 riverbeds. If the price of the 440 is too steep, Kropiwiec recommends the slightly cheaper Vanquish 340 for beginners.

Best intuitive metal detector

$$ | Field, beach, and deep water | Good for beginners to intermediate-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. Kropiwiec says it’s a fairly simple detector to operate and that all you need in order to use it are some YouTube videos and field practice. He also adds that you can often find a used model in great condition for a lower price. The Equinox 800 uses Minelab’s multifrequency technology for supersensitive detection and lets you choose from four detecting modes: park, field, beach, and gold. It has a battery life of up to 12 hours, is waterproof up to ten feet, and, depending on which version 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 all-terrain metal detector

$$$ | All terrain | Good for experts 

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 up to 60 meters. Plus, the company updates its software often and offers free downloadable software upgrades for life.

Best waterproof metal detector

$2,499

$$$ | Deep water | Good for experts

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 allows you to detect multiple objects underground at once (displayed as dots on a grid) so you can distinguish the good stuff from the junk. And it comes with wireless headphones and a built-in wireless speaker that you can clip to your belt.

Best metal detector for kids

$ | Beach and shallow water | Good for children ages 4 to 8 years old

If you’ve got a kid who is 8 years old or younger and dying to start digging for treasure, Martin recommends this easy-to-use waterproof metal detector. “I have a 6-year-old myself and bought him a Nokta Makro Mini Hoard, which is very lightweight, short, and has a display that shows a thumbs-up smiley face or thumbs-down frown face to indicate if the metal is worth digging up,” he says. Because the detector is waterproof up to three feet, kids can get used to digging in loose sand on the beach before moving on to more difficult terrain. It also has a retractable wand that makes it easy to pack for traveling, plus it comes with a sand-sifter, a sand scoop, two sets of stickers, and a two-year warranty.

Best large search coil for extra coverage

$ | All terrain | Good for intermediate-to-expert-level hunters

The search coil that comes included with the Minelab Equinox 800 metal detector is 11 inches in diameter. But as you gain more experience in the field, you may want to upgrade to a larger coil. “I have a new 15-inch coil from Minelab that gives me more coverage, and the results are surprising. It can find really small pieces of silver, gold, and bronze, even with fast settings,” says Kropiwiec. The larger coil also allows you to increase the depth at which you can detect small pieces of metal. Like the smaller coil that ships with the Equinox 800, it is waterproof while also being excellent for searching in fields and parks. Not all metal detectors allow you to switch out different coils, but most of the expert-level machines do. This particular search coil is only compatible with Equinox-series metal detectors.

Best pinpointer

$ | All terrain | Good for all levels

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 prevent him from digging unnecessarily big and messy holes. “You want to dig what looks kind of like a trapdoor. 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 U.S., use White’s Electronics TRX Bullseye Waterproof Pinpointer. Unfortunately, that particular model is sold out everywhere online at the moment, but Martin also recommends this one from XP.

Our experts

• Branko Barisic, a Croatian detectorist who posts his finds on Instagram as Metal Detecting Croatia
• Brad Martin of Green Mountain Metal Detecting
Emily Chambers, a detectorist living in southwest England
Artur Kropiwiec, a U.K.-based detectorist
Dominique Ivy, a detectorist in the Northeast United States
• Matthew Reeves, director of archaeology at James Madison’s Montpelier in Virginia
George Streeter, a New Hampshire–based detectorist who hosts annual group hunts
Jessie Thompson, a Connecticut-based detectorist

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The Very Best Metal Detectors