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What Metal Detector Is Right For Me?

By Dan Breitenstein

Iím asked this question several times everyday. People from all walks of life have been getting in touch with that place inside that turns them to our hobby and the closer they get to the starting line, the more confusing their choice becomes. Finding the metal detector thatís right for you is not that all-fired hard if you sit back and ask yourself some basic questions. The trick here is to be completely honest with yourself when you answer them.

VLF (Very Low Frequency) metal detectors are by far the most popular machines available today and Iíll only address that type of machine in this article simply because the Pulse Induction machine applies to a very narrow band of hunting applications. Almost all of the VLF machines sold today have a mode that allows you to discriminate out (or not respond to) targets that you consider junk.

Letís talk a little about discrimination before we go any further. A discrimination control on most machines is simply a dial that will make the detector not respond to certain targets. If you picture the control dial as a rainbow and weíll start out at the left-hand bottom of the rainbow. There we find iron. As we turn the discrimination up, iron will go away (the machine will no longer respond to it). Aluminum foil such as gum wrappers is the next thing to disappear as we turn the dial up. The next thing would be nickels and then pull-tabs. As we keep turning it up soda caps and then zinc pennies disappear. Now about the only things left for the detector to respond to are coins (copper, clad and silver). Beer cans and heavily rusted iron will almost always be there no matter how high you turn it up, but they are an exception to the rule because their signal is just plain too powerful to ignore.

There are two types of land based VLF machines on the market today and you have to ask yourself which type is right for you. Answering this question will cut the choices in half and greatly narrow your search. The two types are those with a target identification system (target ID) and those that work on sound alone. Both types of machines have discriminate modes as described above. Your first question is now at hand. Do I want a Target ID machine or one thatís based on sound?

Target ID machines give you a visual and/or audio indication of what the target is. Some of them will have arrows that point to a probable target on an LCD display while some of them show a numeric value for the target which gives you more individual control of the "final" identification of the target before you dig. Machines with target ID systems are easier for most people to use simply because they take some of the guesswork out of deciding whether or not to dig. In my opinion they are far superior for coin hunting because your days of digging pull-tabs are almost over. The downside of the target ID machine is that we users become a bit complacent and many of us stop digging targets that ID as a pull tab. Most gold jewelry falls right into the pull tab target range and consequently we walk right over it thinking we know better. I havenít seen a target ID machine yet that can accurately tell the difference between a pull-tab and a 10K gold ring. If you want to be the guy that shows up at your next club meeting with gold in your hand to show off, you have to keep your discrimination turned down far enough to find it and you have to dig every pull-tab signal you encounter.

The second type of VLF machine that I alluded to is one that uses sound alone. These machines rely heavily on your control of the discrimination and your ability to comprehend the sounds it makes while being passed over different types of targets. In general, the sound made over a "good target" will be a sweeter, softer sound with a clear tone. Most junk targets will produce a tone that starts and ends abruptly while the good targets begin and end a tone with ease. The real beauty of the sound based detector is that it will, in many cases, give you that sweet sound over a gold ring. On the average more people who use a sound based machine will find gold rings simply because a target ID system is not telling them that itís a pull-tab. As I stated above, if something tells you itís a pull-tab, human nature tells you not to dig it. Sometimes we humans are our own worst enemies. The downside of the sound based machine is mainly the learning curve. It takes longer to "become one with your machine" and truly understand what the machine has to say. Discrimination falls into play heavily on these machines because the sound a target makes will change as the discrimination control is turned up. This can wreak havoc on your learning curve. You need to set it low enough to find gold and leave it in one place. You will, without a doubt, dig more pull-tabs with a sound based system, but the success rate on jewelry is usually higher.

The next question you have to ask yourself is if you want to hunt on water, land, or both. There are VLF metal detectors that are more specific in nature and you need to know the difference. Every current manufacturer is making their search coils waterproof so you can search out that swimming hole that you played in as a kid as long as you keep the control box dry. Only a few of them have a watertight control box that allow you to get the entire machine wet. Sealed, watertight machines are always heavier and sometimes weigh enough to make land hunting a miserable task. Hip mounting the heavier machines is sometimes an option, but remember you still have that heavy thing hanging on you throughout the entire day of hunting.

Do you want to hunt salt-water beaches? This is a big question that many donít really understand. They see these guys on TV or while they vacation at a beach lurking out in the surf or down along the wet sand and they think all metal detectors will easily perform that function. As a matter of fact, very few of them will do it well. The salt in wet beach sand acts like a capacitor at times and it will build a momentary charge, which is released back at the detector and produces a false signal. This capacitance effect is not always predictable and it will drive most people to thinking their new metal detector certainly has something wrong with it. There are machines available that have "salt water modes" that deal with this very well and the guys you see out there getting wet usually have spent the extra cash to get just such a machine. The average VLF machine will work great on a saltwater beach as long as you stay in the dry sand where the sunbathers hang out. Personally, I prefer the dry sand areas because the view is always better and thatís where Buffy and Tiffany laid their rings on the towel while they took in some sun and shook them off with the sand before they left.

Do you want a machine with a true "no-motion" all metals mode? You need to understand that machines operating in the Discriminating mode generally always require motion over the target for the machine to make the proper audio or visual response. No-motion all metals is exactly what it says. Motion is not required and any metal target anywhere under the coil will make a constant response. This mode is good for relic hunting in less trashy areas. No-motion all metals mode will generally go an inch or so deeper because the discrimination circuitry is shut off and itís running wide open. I personally prefer the discriminate mode because the trash in my part of the country is fairly thick. Iíve hunted relics in remote areas before and the no-motion all metals mode definitely has its place.

Do you need a machine with a manual ground balance? Ground balancing a metal detector adjusts for minerals in the soil and allows your machine to operate more efficiently. I donít mean efficiently like we think of fuel consumption, I mean it allows you to tune out the minerals and detect real targets deeper in the soil. If you live in an area where the soil is full of iron (red) or in coal mining country, you might want to have a machine you can ground balance. This function is always a factor when hunting in the all-metals mode because the lionsí share of machines today revert back to a preset ground balance within the machine when you go into the discriminate modes. Some of the higher end machines have automatic ground balancing features that are very effective. Donít be fooled by any manufacturerís terminology. If there is no ground balance knob or "ground adjust" type of button on the machine, the ground balance is preset by the factory to an established "average" setting which will work great in 95% of the ground you would hunt. Many ads out there will lead you to believe differently, but itís up to you to see through the smoke and mirrors.

How much do you want to spend? Unless your name is Bill Gates or Ted Turner, cost will always have a bearing on what you buy. You must take a strong look at what you get for the money you spend. Look at the warranty, look at the features. Weigh out the questions you have asked yourself. As a matter of fact, write your answers down before you go to the catalogs.

Iíll leave you with one more thought. As you go through the metal detector catalogs and you read about all of the features, be smart enough to read through the fancy names they give their special coils and fancy circuitry. Donít sit there and drool over something with a fancy name or a cool color scheme. Look closely at the features and ask your dealer questions. Be blunt with him because itís your hard earned money thatís about to be spent. If your questions arenít answered in a clear manner so that you can understand them, move on to the next dealer.