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Best Metal Detectors For Finding Relics

(How To Be A Successful Relic Hunter)

By Andy Sabisch
Misc Relics Found
Even simple relics can tell a story. Boy Scout memorabilia, a 1940's baseball buckle, a long-lost lifeguard's whistle, a padlock from the early 1900's and a few kids toys all open a window to the past. (Relics from the author's personal collection and recovered on private property w/ permission from owner)

Barry is a successful relic hunter who through careful research has pinpointed the location of a long-forgotten Civil War cavalry camp a short drive from his home. Obtaining permission to search the site from the current property owner, he used his handheld GPS unit to navigate through the woods to reach the site of the camp. As he scouted out the area the results proved that his research had been "spot on" as several nice period relics were soon recovered. As the sun began to set over the nearby ridge hours later, Barry started to hike back to the truck with a pouch filled with relics. Each of his finds that included bullets, buttons, coins and bridle pieces had a story to tell and their recovery allowed history to be preserved. A week later Barry brought his finds to the monthly meeting of the metal detecting club he belonged to and the reaction from fellow club members was almost predictable. Many of the members searched for Civil War relics in the local area; however, with the exception of an isolated bullet or two, it seemed that Barry was the only one that was able to find decent artifacts with any regularity. If this sounds familiar, then this guide is for you.

So what exactly is relic hunting? It is actually the most diverse form of treasure hunting in terms of the types of targets that hobbyists seek and unearth. You don't have to live in an area containing Old West ghost towns or historic military battlefields to be a relic hunter as relics can include virtually anything ranging from everyday household items to mining equipment, military gear, wagon parts, trade beads, horse shoes, early American settler artifacts...simply add any item you can imagine to the list and there will probably be someone out there looking for and finding it with one of today’s metal detectors. Anywhere - and that means anywhere - people have been, lost relics are just waiting for detectorists to find, recover and preserve their story.

Relic hunting was the first "recreational" uses of metal detectors. Many of the 'ole timers used surplus World War II mine detectors beginning in the late 1940's to locate artifacts from Civil War sites, pioneer trails, mining camps and the like. Despite the limitations of this early equipment, countless relics were in fact recovered and found their way into museums and other collections for others to enjoy. When the first detectors with ground balance circuitry were released in the 1970’s, many sites that were previously un-huntable due to high mineralization were searched effectively. Some relic hunters reported that the problem back then was not finding a site to hunt but rather being able to carry all of their finds back out at the end of the day. I’m sure we all wish we had problems like that today! Many of the well-known sites have been hunted for more than 40 years and, while no site is ever completely hunted out, finds have become few and far between. Before you get discouraged and give up relic hunting without even getting started, take heart, as there are hundreds of sites remaining that have never been searched with a metal detector. Selecting the right equipment, conducting the proper research to lead you to these locations and then using the right search techniques will allow you to find what others have missed. Let’s take a look at what you need to be successful in the field regardless of the type of relics you might be seeking.

War Relics Found
Relics recovered from sites that have since been reclaimed by Mother Nature include a Civil War era cannon ball, a stirrup, a WWII .50 caliber machine gun casing / bullet and a knife found at the site of a cabin that dated back to the 1800's. (Relics from the author's personal collection and recovered on private property with permission from the owner)

None of the manufacturers today make a bad detector but certain brands and more specifically, certain models stand out from the crowd when it comes to specific applications. The key factor for most relic hunters will be the overall detection depth afforded by a particular model and the one that goes the deepest will often be the one that finds the most at the end of the day, especially at sites that have been hunted for decades. Since relic hunting tends to be an all-day activity, finding a detector that you can hunt with for extended periods of time without discomfort should also be a prime factor to consider. I know several veteran relic hunters who purchased detectors that were ideally suited for the conditions in their areas; however, they had to switch to a different model due to being unable to hunt with it for any length of time. Weight and ergonomics should be high on your list of factors to consider if you intend on spending a good part of the day in the field. Another factor to consider is the overall design of the detector. If you have to hipmount the control housing to be able to use it for extended periods of time or it requires that the battery pack be attached to your belt, is this really going to work when you’re slogging through thick underbrush a mile or two from where you had to park your vehicle? Several detectors now offer wireless capabilities which make it easier to hunt overgrown areas.

Interchangeable coils are a must when selecting a detector for relic hunting and you should see what the largest coil is that can be used on the detector you are considering. Larger coils allow you to cover more ground with each sweep and are invaluable when trying to find a possible site among acres of fields or woods plus they detect targets deeper than stock coils. On the other hand, once you find a site, a smaller coil may enable you to find relics in between trash or amongst rocks or fallen trees that a larger coil might otherwise miss. See if there are after-market coils available as the additional choices will greatly expand the versatility of any model you might be looking at. Kellyco carries optional coils from both the metal detector manufacturers as well as third party suppliers for many of the brands and models they stock.


Once you have the right equipment, you need to have sites to search that hold the relics you are hoping to find.A good way to start is to pick up some of the books covering the period you are interested in which can provide leads to sites that may be near your home. Remember that if they are described in widely-distributed, popular books, the sites will probably have been searched by others before you but with the right equipment and techniques, you can find what others have missed. Kellyco carries several books and maps that will help you locate sites in your area to get started with. Local research is what will put you onto sites that few if any detectorists have searched before which are what we are all hoping to find. Libraries, historical societies and regional museums are all sources of research material that can help you zero in on potentially productive sites. You will find that with a few targeted questions, the librarian or historian is often more than willing to talk about the area and you may find several sites being offered with little effort on your part other than listening to the conversation. Don’t forget about long-time residents as they can tell you where buildings once stood, what changed when highways were built and even stories they heard from their parents or grandparents as they were growing up. In several instances I was told about a Civil War campsite, old mine or hermit’s shack from an older resident that turned out to be very productive yet was not documented in any book.

A few proven tips to put into practice when you are looking for sites include the following:

    • People and livestock required water so camps, settlements and even isolated homes would typically be situated near a source of water. When you are looking over a map, pay particular attention to areas near streams, lakes or rivers that would have provided a source of water. If settlers or troops had a choice, they would try to set up home or camp as close to water as possible.


    • Military commanders tried to setup vantage points on high ground. If you are searching for a camp or battle site, see if there is high ground in the area. Even if most of the activity occurred in the lower areas, troops would have been stationed on the higher ground as lookouts or to direct the course of the battle and often these sites have not been hunted to any degree.


  • Relic hunters often focus on specific sites like battlefields, settlements or ghost towns. Keep in mind that the people or troops had to move from point 'A' to point 'B', and unless there were railroads available, they walked. If you can pinpoint two locations on a map, try to determine the most likely path that they would have taken between them. Does the route pass along a stream or river? If so, they may have stopped for a rest and to collect water. A number of outstanding finds have been made by relic hunters searching sites that by all accounts should not have had anything since there were no camps or battles in the area; however, those passing through lost artifacts that were waiting to be found.

With the increased competition among relic hunters today, research is the key if you want to be successful. With a little effort you will be able to locate sites that have not been heavily hunted and you may in fact be the first relic hunter to visit the site.

Misc Relics Found
A little research and a few hours searchinga wooded area in central Georgia uncovered these bullets from the Civil War...imagine the story they can tell! (Relics from the author's personal collection and recovered on private property with permission from the owner)

Your research should have helped you identify several potential sites to search. There are a number of tips and techniques that can help you find more in less time, which should be your overall goal. It's surprising how often relic hunters who have taken the time to conduct research and locate sites do not have a formal plan or method to actually search the site once they arrive. As they say "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while" but hoping for the best will rarely ensure you will be successful on a regular basis. The following tips have been honed over time and will help you find more in less time when you are out relic hunting.

    • Use the least amount of discrimination possible. As the discrimination level is increased, the potential for a rejected target; i.e. one below the setpoint of the selected discrimination, to override the signal from a good target also increases. If the signal from the rejected target is stronger either because it is shallower or larger than the good target, you may not receive a signal from the target you are hoping to find. This is why many heavily hunted sites are still producing valuable relics for hunters who are willing to dig a little more trash in order to be sure they do not inadvertently miss a "keeper". The actual discrimination level you use in the field should be selected based on the amount of trash present and how much "patience" you have at the time which can and will change from day-to-day or site-to-site.


    • Try using different search coils to hunt the sites you know have produced in the past. As discussed earlier, each coil has its advantage. At times, simply changing coils can uncover artifacts that were undetectable with the coil that came with your detector. Successful relic hunters often bring two or three different coils with them so that they have the flexibility the different sizes provide.


    • If you gain access to a field that is still being farmed on a regular basis, plan to revisit the site after it has been tilled. Artifacts that may have been beyond the detection depth of your detector or situated at an angle that prevented it from being detected may now be easily located. Productive fields can be hunted year after year with a continual harvest of relics being recovered. If you hear about a field that produced relics years ago and is now thought of as being "hunted out", get permission and head over there at the first opportunity to see what is still waiting to be discovered.


    • Keep an audible threshold on your detector. If your detector has a search mode with an audible threshold, try using it when relic hunting. Unless you are hunting in all-metal, when you pass over objects that fall within the area(s) you have opted to reject, you will hear the threshold disappear or null out. Often if you are looking for a camp site, home place or skirmish area, the first indication that you are in the right location will be ferrous items such as nails, tacks or small pieces of rusted iron. When you come across signals that null out, slow down, tighten up your search pattern and see what turns up.


    • Most pre-1900 sites contain a great deal of ferrous targets such as nails, boot tacks, horseshoes, tool parts, iron pins, etc. Even if you are not interested in digging up all of these targets, the fact that they are present can help you find the right location to tighten up your search pattern and start recovering the relics you are hoping to find. Let's assume that your research has identified the existence of a small campsite or long-lost settler's cabin. You have determined the approximate area where it was located; however, it would take a considerable amount of time to thoroughly cover the entire 10 to 20 acre area. In this case the best way to try to pinpoint the campsite is to set your discrimination as close to '0' as possible and simply walk back and forth across the area. Once you start to find a concentration of targets, slow down and start working a more formal pattern to ensure you don't miss anything. Remember the previous tip of using minimal discrimination as you search to ensure a rejected target won’t keep you from detecting a good target located nearby.


    • Fire pits are another area worth trying to find when searching campsites or even settler's cabins. Camp fire pits were not only used for cooking. Trash was often tossed into the fire at the end of the day. Much of what is recovered from fire pits shows signs of being in the fire; however, a number of first-rate finds have come out of them. This is another reason why you want to search camps with very little discrimination. A fire pit will usually contain ferrous trash and non-ferrous trash so even the slightest amount of discrimination will cause you to miss a potentially productive area.


  • Once you've located a camp or cabin site and searched it, don't be too quick to head on to the next one. If it was occupied for more any length of time, they would have found an area a short distance away to get rid of the trash. It is human nature is to carry the trash to a spot downhill. After all, if you had the choice of carrying trash uphill or downhill what direction would you choose? You can either walk the area yourself or spend a few minutes looking over a topographical map and using one of the aerial map websites on the Internet to identify potential dumpsites. A few fellow relic hunters I know actually use their Smartphone to look at maps real-time in the field to figure out where to search next - leverage today's technology! Remember that yesterday’s trash is today’s treasure. Items such as belt buckles with broken pins, threadbare clothes and other items that could not be salvaged were typically discarded with the daily trash - any of which would make a welcome addition to your collection.

Unless you are searching for shallow relics in a grassy area, you will need a tool that can reach down to where the relics will be found and do so without bending after a few holes have been dug. Many times the soil will be rock-hard which will truly put any digging tool to the acid test. Saving a few dollars in buying a lesser-quality tool will quickly turn into an expensive mistake when you find yourself a long way from your vehicle with the digger you just bought bent or broken in half...and I've seen it happen more times than I care to remember to fellow relic hunters. You know it will usually take place when you are in a great site and have been given permission to hunt it one time only. Most relic hunters use a shovel or spade designed to provide years of service in all types of soil conditions. Typically constructed entirely of metal, the only real maintenance that might be required is to occasionally sharpen the edge so you can cut through roots or vines often found in wooded sites. Other options you might want to investigate include folding military shovels (just make sure you get a true surplus shovel and not an imported look-alike that rarely holds up), a hand-help pick (again, get one that is solidly built) or an all-metal gardening tool that works in your ground conditions. A handheld digger is also a necessity as a shovel will not be able to extricate finds from under large rocks or thick roots. An electronic pinpointer is another handy item as it can keep you from damaging a relic that may be wedged into a tight area or in a hole with multiple targets. These pinpointers also reduce the time it takes to find a small item in loose dirt and at the end of the day, the quicker you find each target the more you will have in terms of finds.


Take a minute and look around your own area, delve into the local history and see just how many different types of relics are waiting to be found within a short distance of your house.


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