Winning Anyway: 4 Metal Detecting Handicaps and How to Fix Them

Back in the early 1980’s when I started detecting, I would read Western and Eastern Treasures magazine and be so jealous of the amazing finds others would pull out of the ground.   I thought these guys were lucky, legendary and larger than life.  I couldn’t imagine that one day I would be able to do the same.     Why?    It was all about the things that I thought were outside of my control.    I call these “Handicaps” and the truth is they are all things that we can overcome to become the best detectorists we can be.


When I started detecting I basically lived in the middle of a cotton field in rural Indianola, Mississippi.     I was just a kid with a pile of Western and Eastern Treasures magazines, and what I didn’t realize is how integral my geographical location was to my chances of being successful.  The detectorists finding things like Civil War buckles and 1700s coins and gold jewelry lived on battlefields, in the US colonial states on the east coast, in Europe or on beaches.   I lived in the middle of a Mississippi cotton field with a few old sharecropper house places to detect.   A 1942 Walking Liberty half and an 1897 Indian cent were as good as it was going to get for me during my first few years.

The fact is if you live in Europe you have thousands of years of history to detect.   In the US, if you live in or near the East Coast, you have a good 500 years of metal in the ground.  If you live in places like Virginia or Middle Tennessee, or Northern Mississippi you are on primo Civil War battlefields and camps.  Or if you live near a beach, or gold nugget hunting grounds, then you are in good shape.  But what if you don’t live in a “metal detecting mecca”?


Determine what there is to find in your area:  Find other detectorists in your area and figure out what they are doing.    Are they water or beach hunting?  Are they hitting yards and finding silver coins?   Are they after gold nuggets?  Or relics?

Research Hard :   If you don’t live in a primo detecting area, the burden for you to research and find the historical places is much more critical.  Find the oldest towns and cities near you.   Find the battlefields, forts or camps Near You.   They are there; you probably just don’t know it.

Be Willing to Travel:  It is worth a two or even three hour drive on a Saturday morning to get to a killer site to hunt with amazing potential.   I spent most of my first 30 years in Mississippi focusing on finding silver coins at homesites and yards.    It didn’t even occur to me that I was one hour from Vicksburg, and Natchez, Mississippi and probably should have been focusing on places like that.


I started with a Radio Shack Micronta detector that was less than $100 bucks.   My second detector, a Bounty Hunter, wasn’t much more than that.   Today I admit I hunt with a couple of high-end, high dollar detectors.     And those detectors do provide some advantages to me at my current skill level after 32 years detecting.   But the truth is, the detector doesn’t find stuff:  you do.   I could get by with far less than I use.   Hopefully without sounding like an ass, it is the difference between driving a BMW and a Honda.  Both will get you there.

With that in mind, you still need a good detector that is proven to find stuff.


Don’t Believe the Hype:  Today’s technology is absolutely incredible and the high-end machines are indeed great, but you can be successful with a good used or older generation machine.  On a good site, I’ve seen detectorists with $200 machines wipe the floor with others that were hunting with machines that cost well over a $1000.    Why?  Skill, Location, and Luck always trump the detectors being used.

Stay Away from Junk:   There are many detectors out there that are extremely cheap.  In reality, the majority of these are little more than toys.   You are much better off with a beat up used detector that is in working condition, or a very old generation machine that is cheap because it is “out of style”.

Know Your Detector’s Capabilities:  It is critical that you bury some good and bad targets out in your yard in clear ground and get a good idea of how deep your detector will hit them, and how well you can distinguish good and bad targets with it.  You should be able to hit a dime at 4-6 inches pretty easily and be able to distinguish the dime from a pull tab before digging.   If you can’t do this after working at it, you are in trouble and may need to try a different machine.

Buy Used:   Scour Craigslist and the Detecting Facebook Groups for a deal on an old machine.  Be patient and wait for a killer deal on one.  Don’t be afraid to buy an older generation machine.  Don’t get hung up on a brand, try to get the best machine you can for your budget.

Be Creative: If you make some friends online in your area, you might get them to turn lose of one of their old machines they don’t use for a good price, and they may let you borrow it before you buy.  You can also bargain with permission.    “I know you want $200 for it, but how about $150, and I’ll take you to the Jones place.  No one has ever hunted it, and my grandmother knows the owner.”    I don’t think I’m the only detectorist that would take that deal in a snap!

Trade Up:  If I was starting over, I would have tried to trade up over time for a  Garrett AT PRO.  Most detectorists will likely agree that is the best detector out there, and is underpriced in the $500-$600 range.   I might try to buy a non working detector for little or nothing and fix it up, or start with whatever I could afford and trade anything I had to trade for a better machine until I got a machine that was working for me.

Master Your Machines to the Max:     Work to make sure you can get the absolute best depth and results with whatever machine you currently have to hunt with.   Talk to others to determine tweaks to the settings that may provide an edge.  Work on your swing.  Your fundamentals should be perfect.  This means plenty of time in the test garden.

Hunt more Virgin Sites:  If you have a detector that you don’t feel is up to par,  you need to do the research and get the permission to hunt exceptionally good sites that haven’t been beat to death by detecting in the past.

Stand Pat:  If you have mastered your machine and are finding great stuff, don’t fall into the trap of feeling like you must have a high-end detector just for the sake of having it.   The Relics never Lie.   Trust me, there is always a better detector to buy.  Unless you are a millionaire, when you upgrade, upgrade for a reason!


Permission is one of the toughest things about detecting.   Your best shot at getting the best stuff is generally on private property,  and you have to get permission to hunt it.

I used to be absolutely terrified of knocking on a door and asking permission.  This took a lot of work to overcome and I can provide a couple of good solutions to this problem.


Networking:  There are plenty of ways to get permission without knocking on a door.   Make sure everyone you know and run into is aware of your detecting hobby and that you are always looking for places, anywhere, to detect.   Offer to find lost items, as this often leads to permission.

Repetition:  At some point, to get to the good stuff, you are probably going to have to knock on some doors.   There are many great articles here on D365 to get you started.    My crash advice is to look good, blank out your mind, walk up to the door, smile, apologize for the interruption, have a card and examples of your finds to show, and keep it short and natural.  “I love to hunt the yards in the area for things like these and were hoping you would let me detect your yard for a while this afternoon?”        Yes you are going to run into nice and harsh “No’s”, and plain mean people, but the only way to get over it is to do it.   Trust me it gets easier and your fear will subside with repetition.    Once you get some “Yes’s” and find some great stuff, you will begin to shrug off the “No’s” and laugh at the meanies.


I really feel for some of my friends that love metal detecting, but just can’t get out and do it anymore, whether it be due to age or injury.   There is no real answer for that.   If you can still possibly detect, but are having difficulties doing so, here are some things that can help:


Pick Your Battles:   Don’t go out and just detect anywhere.  If you get out to detect, try to make sure it is a high probability of being a sure thing.  We know there are no guarantees, but do your best.  Also, good grassy yards are much easier on the joints and knees than construction sites, for example.  Also watch the weather.  Hunt on beautiful, nice days when it is not too hot or cold.

Light Detector:    If money is no object, the XP Deus with a 9″ coil is ridiculously light, like a toy.    Try to hunt with a light detector.  A heavy detector will wear you out faster and is harder on the joints.   I’m not a big fan of slings but if that works for you to use the detector you want to use, go for it.  You also want to carry as light a digging tool as possible.

Short Sessions:   Detect in really short sessions.  If you are only good for an hour, a lot of times that is actually better than getting out there all day.    If you need to hit it for 15 or 20 minutes at a time, then just take breaks.   Do what you can and don’t hurt yourself.

Pads:  Knee pads or carrying a seat cushion you can kneel on can be a lifesaver.

Assistant:  When he got in bad shape physically, my mentor used to carry his 12 year old grandson along with him to dig.  His grandson was ecstatic and they made one hell of a team.   Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and make it fun for the helper!


Detecting is a tough hobby in the first place.  If you have challenges that make it more difficult on you than others, it is best to face them and do the things necessary to overcome them and win anyway, evening the odds the best you can.  Best of luck on your next hunt!


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