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Metal Detector Review
Why Buy a Metal Detector?
Metal detecting is a strangely addictive balance of treasure hunting and old-world romance. Every beep of the metal detector comes with the special thrill of potentially digging up a rare coin or maybe Viking gold (if you're in Europe). But even if you don't find treasure, there's something romantic about uncovering an old coin or an old nail from a bygone era. You could be the first person to touch that coin in decades or centuries. Every find has a story to tell.
Most detectorists start out as coin collectors. It makes sense to get a metal detector if you're a coin collector, especially if you want to find an ultra-rare 1913 Liberty Head nickel worth millions. That said, many treasure hunters are also amateur archeologists looking for cannonballs, bullets and other artifacts from civil war battlefields or artifacts from ghost towns scattered around the U.S. Still, you might be looking for a metal detector because you lost your wedding ring in your backyard and a metal detector is your only hope at recovering it. Such stories are surprisingly common.
Whatever your reason for buying a metal detector, we spent over 90 hours researching the best metal detectors for beginners within $200 to $400. Then we spent over 30 hours testing the top 10 metal detectors in that price range. Our goal was to find the one that gives you the best chance at finding treasure with the smallest learning curve. The Garrett Ace 250 clearly earned this distinction. It's significantly more accurate than others and has no learning curve. You can immediately hop onto a field and start finding treasure. Despite being less accurate, the Bounty Hunter Quick Draw Pro and the Fisher F4 are also worth considering.
How Do Metal Detectors Work?
In the simplest terms, metal detectors create a magnetic field using a coil that you moved over the ground. When the magnetic field passes over something metal, the metal causes the magnetic field to distort. These distortions are picked up by the detector, and you are alerted with a tone. Different-pitched tones can tell you what type of metal is buried.
When you hear the tone, you pinpoint the location by moving the detector left and right, forward and back, until you're sure of the object's location. Then it's just a matter of pulling out your trowel and digging until you find the metal.
Coil Construction: Concentric vs. DD
There are two basic types of coils: concentric and DD. Concentric coils are the most common. These coils nest one metal ring inside another and are usually circular, though they can be oval. Concentric coils emit a cone-shaped search field about as wide and deep as the coil itself. For example, if a concentric coil has an 8-inch diameter, then the magnetic field is about 8-inches wide and 8-inches deep. However, since the magnetic field is cone-shaped, the field is narrowest at the deepest point. As such, unless you're very methodical with your search patterns, your effective depth will probably be much less than the full width of the coil.
The second type of coil is the DD, which got its name from the way the coils look like two Ds facing one-another. A DD coil creates a magnetic field that is blade shaped rather than cone shaped. While the size of the coil determines the size of the magnetic field, the most common DD coils have a magnetic field that is 2 to 3 inches wide, 10 to 11 inches long, and capable of reaching a depth of 10 to 11 inches.
The DD coil design has two major advantages over concentric coils: First, the magnetic field is thin. Since metal detectors can only identify one type of metal at a time, a narrow field is better at differentiating between closely spaced metals than a cone-shaped field.
Second, while cone-shaped fields are mere pinpricks at their deepest points, a DD coil's field is about half to two-thirds the coil's diameter at its maximum depth. In other words, a DD coil that has a 10-inch maximum depth is more accurate at that depth than a concentric coil with the same maximum depth.
Target ID: Know What You're Digging
Since different metals have unique molecular structures, they cause different types of distortions to the magnetic field. This means that the detectors can identify the metal object, with relatively good accuracy, before you dig. The best metal detectors let you know if the buried object is a quarter or soda can. That said, identifying what a buried object might be is far from an exact science, but you can use a series of related technologies to get a decent idea:
User-friendly metal detectors provide a graphic target ID. This means they analyze the distortions and attribute it to one of a handful of possibilities, which are usually graphic pictures of the most common metals you're likely to find: a nickel, quarter, nail and so on. More advanced detectors display a number, usually between one and 100, that corresponds to a specific type of search field distortion. Over time, you learn what these numeric target IDs correspond to and can instantly tell the difference between a soda can and a nickel.
Generally, trash metals like nails and pull-tabs from soda cans tend to fall lower on the target ID scale, while coins and jewelry appear higher. In other words, a higher target ID is usually going to be more valuable than a lower ID. At default settings, a metal detector beeps at anything it finds, but as you use discrimination settings, you can filter out the metals that fall beneath a certain threshold on the target ID spectrum. This allows you to only search for precious finds.
Notching is a specialized type of target ID discrimination. While basic discrimination settings disable alerts for all metals beneath a given threshold, notching lets you isolate and ignore specific frequencies, leaving the rest – both above and below – intact. For example, if you were hunting in a field full of nails and they kept returning target ID values between 25 and 35, you could notch out any metal in that range but continue to receive notifications if your detector finds something with a value of 15 or 60.
Metal Detecting Etiquette: A Code of Ethics
Being a detectorist is a little more complicated than finding an open field or beach and sweeping the terrain. There is a code of ethics that treasure hunters are expected to follow. Some of these codes are just common-sense politeness while other rules protect you against breaking the law.
There are many different codes of ethics for metal detecting. We compiled a list of these codes from a variety of sources. A metal detectorist will:
- Understand and follow all local, state, and federal laws related to metal detecting.
- Respect private property and never metal detect an area without permission.
- Pack out what you pack in, and properly dispose of any trash you find.
- Leave all gates, structures and personal property as they were before.
- Fill in every hole you dig. Leave no trace you were there.
- Never dig in a way that harms vegetation, wildlife or changes natural features.
- Report any significant historical artifacts to local authorities.
- Be an ambassador for the hobby by being courteous and thoughtful at all times.
- Avoid entering church or parish grounds or cemeteries for the purpose of metal detecting.
- Not to destroy or tamper with any structures on public or private property or what is left of ghost towns.
- Not to contaminate wells, creeks or other water supplies.
What if the Landowner is Reluctant to Provide Permission
Without permission, treasure hunting on the land is considered trespassing. Digging holes is vandalism, and removing treasure is theft. Permission is critical, and it's recommended to get permission in writing. If the landowner is reluctant to provide permission, you can sweeten the deal by offering to share the profit of any treasures you find. Be sure to explain that you'll leave the land better than how you found it.
Beach Detecting & Public Land
Since beaches and public parks are often full of people, it's generally recommended that you avoid peak hours or detect only in remote areas. Hunting at dawn or dusk is often the best time. If people are around, respect their space – a 25-foot buffer is generally recommended. When digging holes in the sand, always be careful to not let the wind blow the sand from your trowel, and always fill in the hole. Leaving holes for people to trip over poses a public health risk.
Treasure hunting in public areas means that you're going to deal with people showing interest in your hobby. If people ask you questions, be courteous and polite, but don't broadcast finds you've made, as it can create unnecessary conflict. Answer their questions. If they are confrontational for any reason, calmly leave the area and don't engage with their behavior.
Metal Detectors: What We Evaluated, What We Found
While there are metal detectors available for under $100, we focused our efforts on high-quality beginner detectors. These are detectors that are well built, will last for years but won't break the bank. As you become more experienced and devoted to the hobby, you can easily invest in devices over $700. We only considered general-purpose metal detectors – for example, while some of the detectors are waterproof, there aren't any dedicated underwater metal detectors on our lineup – but they offer excellent entry into the world of treasure hunting.
The best way to test metal detectors is to take them to a field. We chose a grassy field next to Top Ten Reviews' offices. The field used to have houses. And while we're not sure when the houses were demolished, we know from old aerial photos of the area that they existed in early 20th century. This makes the field an ideal place for treasure hunting for 100-year-old nickels and pennies. However, since the success of a metal detector largely depends being in the right place at the right time, we couldn't simply gauge the quality each detector by what we found in that field. Or could we?
We laid out a grid system of seven across and nine down. Moving across the grin, we dug holes at each point with depths of 2, 4, 6, 8, 9, 10 and 12 inches. Then we planted the following in the holes: iron nails, pull-tabs from soda cans, pre-1982 pennies, post-1982 pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, silver-plated beads and gold-plated beads. We used the two different types of pennies, because the composition shifted from mostly copper to mostly zinc in 1982. As such, pennies can pose cause issues for metal detectors.
We moved each metal detector across this grid twice, for a total of 126 readings. For each reading, we recorded the target ID (what the metal detector says is buried) and the depth (how far in the earth it is buried). We also recorded times when the metal detector failed to find anything at all.
The Surprising Results
The first surprising result was only one metal detector found every piece we planted. While several others missed one or two spots, some missed quite a few, especially in the deeper end of the grid. That said, every metal detector found at least one of the items buried at 12 inches, which was deeper than any maximum depth advertised by the detector's manufacturers. So, you can expect to get hits on stuff that's deeper than what your detector is rated for.
The second surprising result of these tests is the overall inaccuracy of the target IDs. If your metal detector says that it's a quarter, it probably isn't a quarter. Even the most accurate metal detector only correctly identified the metal 40 percent of the time. That said, the metal detectors are often close. For example, they'd tell us that it was a dime when it was a nickel. So, while these devices may not get it right most of the time, they're generally close enough to let you know if you should dig.
We also found the depth indicators to err on the deep side. The metal detectors were far less accurate with the shallow coins than with the deep ones. For example, it wasn't uncommon to find the detector insisting that a coin was buried at 2 inches when, in fact, it was buried at 6 or 8 inches.
The silver and gold beads we planted came up as something different almost every time. So, if you're looking for lost jewelry, you'll need to pay attention to every hit that your metal detector makes, because it can come up as a trash metal, like foil, in one sweep and then a dollar coin in the next.
Still, perhaps the most surprising discovery was just how addictive metal detecting can be, even when you don't find coins.
After finishing our tests on the grid of planted coins, we took the metal detectors off the course to see if we could find any treasure in these fields that once had houses on them. We quickly lost ourselves in the hunt, getting hit after hit. While we didn't find any old coins, we did find some old nails that look like something you'd find in an Old West museum. It's exciting to think these nails are artifacts of long-gone homes where families lived over 100 years ago. This romanticism is very much a part of the attraction to this hobby, especially if you have a passion for history.
Metal Detectors: Our Verdict & Recommendations
After our testing, the Garret Ace 250 clearly earned the Top Ten Reviews Gold Award. Not only was it the most accurate, but it's extremely easy to use. It's no wonder why it's one of the most popular metal detectors on the market and one of the most common recommendations given by expert detectorists. You can take this detector out of the box and start hunting right away.
The Silver Award was earned by Bounty Hunter Quick Draw Pro. It was the second most accurate metal detector in our tests and equally as easy to use as the Garret Ace 250. It's more expensive than the Ace 250, but it comes with more sensitivity settings and a large coil.
The Fisher F4 earned our Bronze Award for best metal detector. It has advanced features that make it a good leap detector for making the leap from beginner to intermediate treasure hunting. It's also one of the few metal detectors with a DD coil at this price range.