Getting Serious About Metal Detecting for Gold

Getting Serious About Metal Detecting for Gold

Other than those who are prospecting for ore, have you found gold? Have you spent a day at the park digging as many pull tabs as you could stand, hoping to find a gold ring? There’s a reason gold is hard to find but these facts and tips may increase your odds.

The Problem with Gold

The gold we seek, with the exception of gold coins, has two challenges right off the bat, content and shape. Pure gold (24 karat) is too soft to be practical to use for jewelry, so it is alloyed with other metals to give it strength and durability. You’ll commonly see 18 karat, 14 karat and 10 karat gold in the US. Foreign gold can be 21, 12 or even 9 karat. The karat tells you how much gold is in the alloy. 14 karat gold is only about 58% gold, and you have no idea what combination of metals the other 42% might be. 10 karat gold is less than 50% gold! So, we’re not even sure exactly what metal alloy we’re looking for.

Shape is the other problem with gold targets. Rings are somewhat easy to detect because, like coins, they are round, and generally similar in size. However, broken rings, chains, bracelets, charms, watches and even “grills” or lost dental plates are all different shapes in sizes. Detectorists have found gold in the nibs in old fountain pens and the frames of eyeglasses that have been lost.

Pull tabs and their parts, decomposing zinc cents and screw caps all are more consistent and regular in composition, size and shape than the majority of gold targets we might seek!

Your first thought might be to just discriminate out those more consistent trash targets and dig everything else. This might meet with some success. You’ll still have to contend with the random signals of can slaw (aluminum cans chopped up by mowers) and a good number of bent and broken pull tabs along with a whole assortment of trash you haven’t even considered yet. Gold targets overall are just as random as the bulk of the trash signals that we’d rather not dig.

Location, Location, Location

Location is another factor that increases or decreases your odds. The guys at the beach might just have the ideal situation for locating lost gold. In scenario one, people remove their jewelry before going in the water and then lose it in the dry sand. In scenario two, people misjudge the effects of the water on their skin, and loose rings and other jewelry can fall off, or be pulled of by the action of the waves.

Tony Mantia (Bell-Two) found this gold Moose ring searching around an old homesite in a farm field with his Minelab CTX 3030 detector.

Tony Mantia (Bell-Two) found this gold Moose ring searching around an old homesite in a farm field with his Minelab CTX 3030 detector.

Another advantage of the beach is the digging is relatively easy. No plugs to cut, extended kneeling or even serious pinpointing is generally needed. Using a sand scoop, scooping until the target is in the scoop and then shaking out is a pretty quick operation. Beach detectorists find trash too, but rarely in the sheer quantities a park hunter could.

The odds are in your favor at the beach. Dig 100 pull tab signals at the park, you’ll probably have 100 pull tabs. Dig 100 pull tab signals at a well used beach, you might have two or three rings, perhaps just junk or plated, but maybe some gold.

You may increase your odds by detecting other places where people might swim. A grass or dirt covered area near where people might jump into a lake or river, a skinny dipping spot and grass areas around swimming pools might have potential. While one such old riverside diving site didn’t yield any gold, a number of silver coins and wheat cents were found there.

Some detectorists waterproof their equipment and go into the water, and others search swimming holes and lakes, but that’s really a whole different variety of detecting and recovery.

Another location that has less trash and the potential for gold, is to search old sites. If you’re searching the site of home, torn down before the 1920s, for example, in the middle of a farm field, those pull tab signals are probably not pull tabs. They can be trash or junk, but more likely they’ll be an old metal button, perhaps a token, coin or another interesting relic.

Tools and Techniques that Can Help

Many challenges face a gold seeking detectorist. The obvious solution to finding gold is to just dig everything that beeps. This will tire you out pretty quickly, but then you can be sure you’re not missing many targets. There are however, two techniques that can be used to help pick out gold from the trash, the round sound and depth.

Some “old timey” detectorists, and I guess I just called myself out on that one, will describe something called a “round sound.” If I hadn’t become acquainted with this myself, I’d probably be the first to say it was hogwash. Yet, especially when using a single tone machine with a concentric coil, a detectorist may notice that round objects do have a smoother tone than those that are oddly shaped. Coins will just “sound” good, and some of those low conductors in the pull tab range, likewise, sound good too. It takes a practiced ear and probably good hearing, but old school detectorists will generally be able to “sense” the round sound without even thinking about it.

Well, that’s all well and good, but how does that help if I have a fancy new detector with multiple tones and a double D coil? Sad to say, it probably doesn’t help. I noticed the round sound most with a basic two knob, single tone machine. The Fisher CZs had multiple tones, but I could still hear the round sound. Those machines also had concentric, rather than double D coils. For more on understanding how the different coils work, check out this article, You Don’t Need an Additional Searchcoil.  The popular Minelab Explorer and E-Trac generally have pretty rotten reputations for finding gold, and it probably has more to do with the multiple tones and the double D coils eliminating the round sound than anything else.

So, if you want to get serious about finding gold, maybe a low cost detector with a concentric coil might be worth an investment. Taking the time to learn the machine and discover the round sound could pay off. I found more gold with my first basic detector than any I’ve owned since.


By digging pull tab targets deeper than the typical trash layer, the author found this broken 14k gold ring at about 9” deep at a local park with the Minelab E-Trac.

Depth can help you find gold in two ways. I think the biggest hindrance to finding many gold targets is the prevalence of pull tabs and aluminum scraps or canslaw in the ground. Fortunately, the pull tab wasn’t invented until 1959 and didn’t come into common use until about 1963. These pesky pieces of trash were outlawed in many places by the mid-1980s. So, going back to a geology lesson in science class, there is a layer in the soil, that among other things contains pull tabs, and that layer is the 1963-1985 layer. If you dig enough tabs at a particular site, you can generally get a pretty good feel of the average depth of this tab containing layer. Let’s hypothetically say this layer falls mostly 3” to 5” at our site. This is actually really good news! Because what I’m going to do is watch the depth meter on my machine and when I see a pull tab target coming in, deeper than that layer, you can be sure I’m going to dig that target. Since it is deeper than the tab layer, there’s a better chance that it’s actually not a pull tab, but probably some sort of other cool relic or maybe something gold. Likewise if the target is shallower than the pull tab layer, there’s also a chance that it’s not going to be a tab. It’s not foolproof, but using this method can increase your odds without having to dig more trash.

Shallow depths can help too, but in a different way. Let’s say an old local park or a concert venue has an event with lots of people sitting on the grass and hanging out. Or it could be a soccer field or softball diamond. People are there losing coins and keys, possibly jewelry, cell phones and all kinds of neat stuff – along with some trash of course. This is a great opportunity to turn your detector into a giant treasure scoop. The ratio of treasure lost to small metal trash discarded at these places is probably in your favor.

The site is loaded with old trash and pull tabs though, how could this be an opportunity? You only want to be finding stuff that was lost recently, maybe that day or even a few weeks ago . Most of these targets are right on the surface or may have been stepped on and pushed down into the soil slightly. The secret? Turn down the sensitivity on your detector as low as you dare. By doing this you stop getting signals from the can slaw buried at 2” and that 1963-1985 layer of pull tabs disappears! If you use an electronic pinpointer and a screwdriver as a probe/retrieval tool, you can go in and probably quickly pick up more zinc cents than you’d like, a good amount of clad, and any rings or jewelry lost by the crowd. If you pick up deeper targets, you can turn down your sensitivity another notch until you’re just getting surface finds.

class ringA brief word here about aluminum screw caps. Those caps, whole or squashed, sound good more often than not. Many times they can sound like a Wheat cent, a zinc cent or better. I use the same depth trick as I do with the layer of pull tabs, as those screw caps seem to have started being used about the same time as the first pull tabs. If the signal is deeper than that pulltab layer, with my machine, there’s a good chance it might be a Wheat cent or maybe even an Indian Head cent. For shallower signals in the screwcap range, that’s a little tougher. Odds are it probably is really a screw cap or a zinc cent, but one target I dug in that range, expecting a screw cap was actually a big 10k gold class ring!

Gold Filled Can Be Good


Gold filled marking on an old ring.

Another place to find gold among finds you might consider to be junk is anything marked “Gold Filled.” Wikipedia says, “If the gold layer is 10 kt fineness the minimum layer of karat gold in an item stamped GF must equal at least 1/10 the weight of the total item. If the gold layer is 12 kt or higher the minimum layer of karat gold in an item stamped GF must equal at least 1/20 the weight of the total item. The most common stamps found on gold-filled jewelry are 1/20 12kt GF and 1/20 14kt GF. Also common is 1/10 10kt.” These items have a much heavier layer of gold on them than just plated ware. Generally these pieces don’t have much value, but with the current high price of gold, some refiners have been buying these items for their gold content if the gold is largely intact and not worn off. Pocket watch and old wrist watch cases are often gold filled. Many of these gold filled items were made on a base of brass, but during World War II, brass was needed as a war material. During that time, some gold filled jewelry items were actually made on a base of sterling silver. Fountain pen caps, eyeglasses, and enameled gilt lapel pins are three examples of gold filled items I have found made on a base of silver. The silver content is not always marked on these pieces.

There’s no easy way to find gold with a metal detector, if there were, everyone would be doing it and you’d soon hear of the second great Gold Rush. Hopefully understanding the variety of potential gold targets and by using some of these tips, you’ll be able to increase your odds of turning up a gold treasure.

Join the Discussion

Please discuss this article below! We want to hear from you. If you like this article, please reward us by liking D365 or this article on Facebook or Twitter.

Photo Credits
Moose ring, Anthony Mantia
Class ring, Jake McArthur, via stock.xchng
All rights reserved by the author for content and photos

Discuss This Article