New to Metal Detecting? Use This Quick Start Guide!

New to Metal Detecting? Use This Quick Start Guide!

Many of those new to metal detecting just go out to their yard or another site, turn on their machine, and, instead of treasure, find confusion and frustration.   The detector emits and displays what seems like a bunch of random noise and symbols.   They do not understand what it is telling them.  They do not find anything.   They are hot (or cold) and dirty.   They go home tired and empty-handed.  After a couple of sessions like this, sadly, many of them put their detectors on eBay or Craigslist or throw them in a closet and never detect again.

By selecting a good basic detector, learning how to use it, and preparing yourself before actually hunting, you can minimize frustration and be on your way to finding treasure and getting hooked on detecting for a lifetime.


If you have never used a detector before, choose a detector that is extremely easy to use.  Many new detectorists make the common mistake of choosing a very advanced, complex and expensive detector just because they can afford it.   You need one that you can just turn on and start detecting without a bunch of adjustments.   If you have a friend that has a detector that you are excited about, by all means borrow it to see if it is for you.    The Fisher F2 and Garrett Ace 250 detectors are widely considered to be two of the best detectors for someone new to the hobby.   You can always upgrade your detector as you master basic detecting techniques and your skills improve, but only if you want to.      The extra depth and advanced features provided by an advanced, expensive detector are probably going to cause you more frustration than extra finds.

We will discuss below, but optionally you might go ahead and invest in a suitable pair of headphones and a pinpointer as well.


Read your detector’s manual and become familiar with each of its features and controls.  Some things that are critical to understand before commencement of swinging the detector:

– Parts and Physical Functions of your Detector: The manual likely has a diagram to familiarize yourself with the components of your detector.  The control box, arm support, shaft, cable and search coil are basic parts of a metal detector.  Follow the instructions to assemble the detector, as well as learn to adjust the shaft and perhaps the arm support for your height.

– Discrimination: Discrimination is simply a detector setting that governs what signals the detector’s computer should ignore.  For example, common discrimination settings  for a coin hunter accept all coins while ignoring pull tabs, nails and bottle caps The amount of discrimination can be modified on each

quickstart instr manual

Most detector manuals are also a great cure for insomnia!

 detector for different situations.  A person hunting for coins will want to have different discrimination settings than someone who is hunting mostly for coins or jewelry.   By having the detector ignore signals that are most commonly trash, for example, you greatly reduce the amount of noise you hear and can focus on the signals that are most likely to be the types of items you are looking for, like coins.

– Programs:  Most detectors come with basic programs that setup discrimination and other features automatically so that you can just turn the machine on and start detecting.  Most detectors have pre-installed programs for “Coins” and “Relics” for example.   Depending on what you are hunting for, it is best to learn how to quickly set the detector on one of these programs and leave it there until you feel like you have mastered basic detecting techniques and are ready to experiment with manual settings.

– Sounds: Your detector will most likely emit different sounds for different types of objects it encounters.  Some detectors emit lower tones for iron and low conductivity objects and higher tones for coins and high conductivity objects like brass or copper.  Some detectors even produce a special sound, such as a cash register “cha-ching”, when the computer is reasonably convinced that you have passed over a coin with the search coil.  You will train yourself on exactly what sounds to listen for in your test garden, but the manual will help you understand the audio capabilities of your detector, including how to adjust the volume level.

Display: Most detectors have a screen that displays information on the signals that the detector is receiving as you swing the search coil over the ground.  Many basic detector display simply say  “Pull Tab, Bottle Cap, Ring/Gold, Penny, Nickel, Dime, Quarter” on the screen.  As you detect a target, the display will indicate which one of these items it thinks the target is.   More advanced detectors simply show a number or a set of numbers and you will need to learn what types of numbers are generally good signals and what types of numbers displayed represent generally undesirable targets.

Sounds (audio feedback), Display (visual feedback), and Signal Repeatability are all parts of the  information the detector provides to help you determine what to dig and what not to dig.

– Depth: Many detectors can also display an estimate of the depth of the target.   This information is not only useful for telling you how deep you need to dig, but may be a clue to how old the target is and may be a determining factor in deciding whether or not to dig the object.  Your manual will explain if and how the detector displays the projected depth of a given object.

– Pinpointing:  Many detectors have a pinpoint function to isolate the exact location of a target so you’ll know where to dig.  Read this part of your manual carefully.


You would not start hunting without learning how to shoot, play basketball competitively for the first time without practicing, or play guitar in front of someone without a lot of practice.  Doing any of these activities with no practice would obviously lead to embarrassment and frustration.  Detecting is absolutely no different.    You need to practice detecting prior to beginning to hunt for real.    Metal detecting in a test garden is practicing.  Metal detecting in the real world is experience.  You will certainly learn from both, but the practice should come first.

Setting up a Test Garden

A test garden is a controlled area with known targets you can detect to practice and regularly check the performance of your machine.

1) First you’ll need to find an area of your yard free of any metal objects.   Something like a ten foot square is good.  This can be some good practice in itself.   Turn your detector on and use the manual to find out how to use zero discrimination, then find a spot in your yard with very few signals.   Dig anything you find and continue until you are fairly sure you can sweep the area with no signals.

2) Get together some test objects including 5-6 good items of the type you will be looking for such as various coins.  Also include some common trash in the test group: a soda pull-tab, a bottle cap, a soda can, and a rusty nail.    Also obtain a pile of brightly colored wooden golf tees to mark the targets in the garden.

3) Take the test objects and bury them at various depths of 3-6 inches and at least a foot apart from one another.   As you improve, you may want to bury some deeper targets, and move the good and bad targets closer together.    Make a map of your test area on a piece of paper showing the location of each object, its identification, and its approximate depth.    Press a brightly colored golf tee in the ground directly above each target so you can see its location.

Try to visit your test garden prior to each hunt.   Even after your become an “expert”, the test garden is a great place to warm up, try out new settings, and make sure the detector is working properly with fully charged batteries.

Test Setup and Settings

Your routine while practicing should match your routine you use in the field as closely as possible.  If you plan to wear headphones in the field, you should wear them practicing, for example.

Turn your detector on and, using what your learned from the manual, turn it onto one of the programs – i.e., COIN or RELIC – that matches what you plan to hunt for with the detector.

FUNDAMENTALS:  Swing Height and Speed

A good, consistent swing is extremely important in order for the detector to provide consistent signals and feedback to you.   A good detector swing has the following important characteristics:

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Make sure your search coil doesn’t rise up at the end of your swing!

Good Height:  Because bumping of the search coil into the ground, grass or other obstacles will cause distorted and false signals, you should swing with the search coil 1/2 to 1″ above the terrain.  Be careful not to let your search coil rise up at the end of your swings, which it will naturally try to do.

If you are having problems keeping the detector at a constant height, you might try keeping your arm fairly rigid and swinging back and forth with your shoulder, or your waist.

Good Width: Just outside shoulder width is fairly common good width for your swing.  Consult your manual for recommendations for your detector.

Good Speed:  Consult your manual for the recommended swing speed  for your detector.   The speed should be constant.  You may have multiple swing speeds for different conditions.  To start you might consider two seconds per swing to be a slow swing in a trashy area, and one second per swing to be a fast swing in an area without a lot of targets.   Count the seconds in your head as you swing: “1001, 1002”.

Overlap: Your swings should overlap about 1/3 – 1/2 of the search coil as you move forward. Take your time moving forward and let the swing dictate your pace.  Your test garden may be small, so step away from it and practice your pace and overlap by approaching the test garden from a distance.

With practice you will get a feel for what the optimal swings are for your detector.   A poor swing is the root cause of many new detectorists problems locating good targets, so practice all you can.

properwaytoswingIllustration courtesy of Ozarks Detector

FUNDAMENTALS:  Repeatable Signal

Once you have a target, you will shorten your swing to just pass the search coil completely over the target until it clears it on both sides.

Select a target in the test garden and practice sweeping the search coil over it back and forth.   Keep swinging it until you are certain you “feel” the signal.  You hear the same thing each time, and the detector displays pretty much the same thing each time.  This is called a repeatable signal, and this is what you will be looking for on an actual hunt.

FUNDAMENTALS:  Pinpointing

Once you have a repeatable signal, you want to practice using the pinpoint feature of your detector to isolate the target.  In the real world this is going to tell you where to dig.  Once you have pinpointed, note the location of the golf tee in on your search coil so you’ll know where to mark the location on a target in the real world.


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I don’t care how many pull tabs I find as long as I find some jewelry.

If you are looking for silver coins, the yard of an old house is perfect.  If you are looking for spare change and jewelry, a park that has not been hunted out may do nicely.  If you are relic hunting – perhaps you want to hunt a pasture that used to be a military camp or part of a battlefield.

Make sure you have permission to hunt the site you have chosen.  Do not be a trespasser!

To be most effective to the new detectorist, it is important that you choose a site that has not been hunted out by other detectorists.  It is also advisable to find a place that is not unusually trashy.


1) Headphones (optional)
It is highly recommended that you use headphones to be able to clearly hear the detectors signals.   Deep signals, for example may be fainter than those from shallow objects.  Headphones also keep the detector for being noisy if you are hunting in a public place.

2) A sample item
Carry a sample coin or other item with you.  If you become frustrated, toss it down on the ground and practice sweeping it until you are confident enough to continue.

3) Gloves
Comfortable gloves are important as you will be sifting through dirt.  Will also protect your hands from getting cut, and from poisonous plants.

4) Treasure Pouch
Something to carry and secure your finds in.   You do not want to get in the habit of shoving your finds in your pockets as you can easily lose or damage them.   You can buy a “finds pouch” or treasure pouch online, or make one yourself.  A good treasure pouch is sturdy to keep from holes being worn in it for finds to drop out of, and has room for larger finds and trash, and a zip or hidden pocket for the good stuff.

5) Digging Tool
An entire article can be written on digging tools.   Some common tools are a garden spade, a screwdriver, or a Lesche digger for yards and parks.  A shovel may be used for fields and woods hunting.

6) Pinpointer (optional)
Not to be confused with the pinpointing feature on your metal detector, a pinpointer is a hand probe that you can stick in the hole you have dug to find the target quickly.   Though a good pinpointer can run over $100, the hobby is much more enjoyable with one.   Using a pinpionter decreases chance of damaging your object, and greatly increases how fast you can recover it.

7) Environmental Items: Think about where you are going to be detecting and prepare.  Dress accordingly and bring the things you need to be there a while.   Wear comfortable shoes that can get dirty.  Do you need insect repellent?  Sunscreen?   Water?  Snacks?   If you are going to be out in the fields or woods, did you think about bringing toilet paper?

Finally! Let’s Detect Some Metal!

Now you are ready to hunt.  Remember what you learned in the test garden.  Turn on your detector and roll.  Keep you swing height, speed, and width the same as your test garden.  Overlap your swings as you move forward.  Take your time.  Take a short break every hour or so to avoid fatigue.

Since you are new, don’t worry about digging everything.  If you can’t get a repeatable signal, just move on.  You can always come back later as you get better.   You are looking for repeatable targets.   As you improve your swing and learn to use your detector better, you can learn to go after the more difficult targets.


Digging is an entire topic in itself, but some quick tips:
– If you are digging in a public place, carefully dig a U shape around the target.   Don’t dig completely around the target or you will kill the grass
– Keep your spade 3-4 inches away from the target and dig straight up and down to avoid damaging the target with your spade.
– Don’t dig any deeper than you have to.   Note the depth estimation on your detector.  Dig shallow first as you can always dig a little deeper if necessary
– Don’t take any dirt out of the hole if you don’t have to.  If you are hunting a delicate park or yard, use a golf towel to put the dirt on and easily transfer it back into the hole when you are finished
– Cover your holes and practice not leaving a trace you are there
– If you can, use a pinpointer to find the target as quickly as possible and avoid unnecessary digging.  If you can’t locate the target with the pinpointer, or don’t have one and can’t find the target, rescan with the detector.   If you still can’t find it and you are in a park or yard, you may have a very deep target like a can or something.  You might consider going on to the next target to avoid damaging the soil.

HOT TIP:  Try to resist the urge to clean a great find out in the field.  You can damage or degrade a valuable coin, piece of jewelry, or artifact just by excitedly try to remove dirt from it.   Tuck it away in your finds pouch and carefully clean it later using water, a wooden toothpick and a soft toothbrush.

Remember to respect the site.  Properly dispose of any trash you dig up to get it out of your way.

Final Thoughts
A structured approach to learning to detect, such as the one described herein is going to save you a lot of headaches and increase the likelihood that you quickly begin making great finds and fall in love with a great hobby that you can practice for years to come.

Bad Luck?  Sometimes even the pros did everything right but it just wasn’t their day.  Stay positive and continue to practice and hit new sites.

Getting Hooked:  Hang in there.  Once you find your first great thing you’ll be hooked for life.  Continue to practice and improve your techniques.

Find a Mentor:   Finding a hunting buddy that is experienced can be a huge shortcut to learning, just like hiring a guitar instructor will help you learn to play guitar faster.  You can hook up with other local detectorists via Craigslist, or some of the online detecting forums.

Continue to Read and Learn:   Besides Detecting365, the internet has many forums you can join.  Expert members using your detector regularly post on those forums.  Befriend and don’t be afraid to ask them questions.  They are usually very happy to help.   You can also find videos of good detectorists in action on YouTube.

Dig Deeper:   What next? If I were you I would also read:

How to Find Your First Silver Coin

There is 1 comment for this article
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