Metal detectors on the market today have electronics far more advanced than those of a generation ago. Manufacturers such as Garrett make good models for beginners. More advanced models of detectors work at more than one frequency, which helps when searching for relics.
Different frequencies can target different types of metal. A lower frequency, for example, is better at picking up iron, brass or steel — common metals used for relics.
E.J. Smith uses a Minelab Equinox 800 detector. “They sell for under $1,000 now,” he said. “I really could never afford a good one until the price started to come down. This Equinox is a game changer. It doesn’t run on just one frequency. It runs on five frequencies at once with military-like precision.”
The size of the coil on the detector also makes a difference. In addition to the standard-size coil, Smith has a large coil for covering bigger areas and a small coil for going deep.
“Most of the targets we find from the Civil War era are between six and 10 inches deep,” he said.
Other gear includes wireless headphones (to help pick up those faint signals) and a pinpointer, a flashlight-sized, electronic device that can pinpoint a signal precisely.
Common digging tools include a T-handled shovel with a narrow blade for digging small, straight holes, and a hand trowel with a serrated edge.
Detecting and digging on public land can run afoul of state and federal regulations. This is why most metal hunting is done on private land, with permission of the landowners.
“You have to find property owners who will let you detect,” Smith said.
In Kanawha State Forest, for example, metal detecting is not allowed, according to KSF Superintendent Chris Bartley. “Any artifacts found within forest boundaries are to stay in the forest,” Bartley said. He said this is a DNR regulation that applies to all state forests and state parks.
In national forests, matters are not quite so cut and dried.
Gavin Hale, heritage program manager for Monongahela National Forest, said his office has seen an upsurge in inquires about metal detecting on public land in the last two years.
“We were getting so many calls about it, we added a page to our website,” Hale said.
“Essentially, it’s legal to use a metal detector in national forests, but we always advise folks to be careful, because it’s not legal to disturb archaeological resources. The conundrum is that most of the items you would find with a metal detector are illegal to remove,” Hale said.
Digging of any type in a nondeveloped area is not allowed without a permit. Hale said people who wish to detect in the MNF should contact his office first to get permission.
“People often don’t know they are going to impact an archaeological site until they’re already in it,” Hale said.
If a hunter finds material remains of human life, or a relic that could be of archaeological interest, he or she must stop searching and contact the MNF office immediately.
In developed areas like campgrounds, swimming areas and picnic areas, no permit is needed. People are allowed to search in these areas for common items like lost coins and jewelry that have no historical value, according to the Forest Service’s webpage.
The Forest Service’s rules and regulations page for metal detecting on Monongahela National Forest land can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mnf/passes-permits/other/?cid=FSEPRD577179.