Steve's Guide to Gold Nugget Detectors
This is my latest "Nugget Detector Guide", now published for over ten years, updated January 2015 with some of the latest model information. Each model has a short description, followed by a very PERSONAL OPINION. Copyright 2002-2015 Herschbach Enterprises - Please do not reuse or repost without my express permission.
This is offered as a simple guide for those wanting a general comparison of the various nugget detectors available new with warranty, along with some kind of real opinion about them. That's all it is, folks, so take it or leave it for what it is worth. It's just that listing specs is of little help to people, and so I take my best stab at providing some guidance for those newer to detecting. These are only my opinions based on my experience with various detectors over the years. While I do have a lot of experience, I must throw in the caveat that I have not used all detectors under all conditions. What may be considered a good detector at one location may not be so good at another location. Detector performance is site specific and so your mileage may vary. Never forget that when reading comparisons on the internet.
Although many detectors sold today can potentially find gold nuggets, I've chosen to only list new units from major manufacturers that have a dedicated prospecting mode. They are the ones most people will be considering, and I have personally used all these models. There are many used models made since 1990 that would also do well but that would make an already long list too long.
Please, if you own one of these detectors, and I call it like I see it, don't take offense. Any nugget detector made will find gold in capable hands, and the owner is far more important than the detector model. I'll put a good operator with ANY detector up against a novice with whatever is deemed "best" and bet on the experienced operator every time. The person using the detector finds the gold. The detector is actually one of the less important factors in nugget detecting success or failure.
A quick note to those who know nothing about these machines. These are metal detectors. There is no such thing as a "gold only" detector. These detectors will also find lead, copper, aluminum, and other metals. These units are best used to look for relatively larger pieces of gold at relatively shallow depths. Concentrations of gold dust are not detectable. Some of these units can hit gold that weighs as little as a grain (480 grains per ounce) or less but only at an inch or two. Only the larger nuggets can be found at depths exceeding a foot. Only world class nuggets weighing many ounces can be detected at over two feet. The vast majority of nuggets found are found at inches, not feet.
The detectors in order based on the lowest average price advertised on the internet as of the date below.
Steve's Guide to Gold Nugget Detectors - Updated January 2015
White's GMZ ($450, 50 kHz) - This detector from White's offers 50 kHz gold sensitivity at a very low price. Designed for the beginner with ease of operation in mind, the GMZ is tuned with only two controls and one switch. The weight including eight AA batteries is 3.4 lbs. The stock coil is a 6" x 10" DD elliptical or 4" x 6" DD elliptical - your choice. The GMZ can use the existing Goldmaster series coils and so has two accessory coils available.
Steve's Opinion - The GMZ sets a new low price point for a dedicated nugget detector at under $500 and also a new standard for ease of operation. The GMZ runs at 50 kHz and the GMT at 48 kHz so the two models do not interfere when used close to each other yet both models can share coils. The GMZ is rather unique in that it is designed to run silent (no threshold). The low price and ease of operation should appeal to some people. I much prefer myself to have a model that offers ferrous discrimination capability and that runs with a threshold sound and so for me the GMZ misses the mark.
Steve's Opinion - Light weight, sensitive, and full target identification. The Gold Bug is a good choice for prospecting, relic, or jewelry detecting and does fine as a coin detector also. This is my recommended entry level unit as it is a bargain for the price. However, if you can afford the small difference in money get the Gold Bug Pro instead to have the option of manual ground balance.
Steve's Opinion - The Pro is the final version in this series which saw several early variations including the Gold Bug above. It is a excellent choice for prospecting, relic, or jewelry detecting and does fine as a coin detector also. I particularly like the fact that the meter always runs in discriminate mode when the detector is in all metal prospect mode - like running two detectors at once. The weight at 2.5 lbs. with the 5" coil is a dream come true. Get the 5" coil version and the optional 10" x 5" DD coil for a great package. For a basic VLF prospecting detector the Gold Bug Pro is an excellent choice for most people. A Steve's Pick.
Steve's Opinion - The Lobo is a good nugget detector combined with a basic but capable coin detecting circuit. The discrimination mode is intended for coin detecting, but doubles as a decent iron ID nugget hunting mode, as long as the discrimination is not set too high (1.5-2). The Lobo wins points with me for its convertible design; it is one of few detectors left that can be hip or chest mounted and it has a good selection of accessory coils. The main thing lacking is a manual or "fixed" ground balance as it always runs in tracking while in all metal prospect mode. Conversely, you cannot ground balance the discrimination mode - it is preset at the factory. The main thing the Lobo has going for it is ease of operation and for this reason alone it is a great choice for beginners. For me personally the lack of manual ground balance or at least a "locked" mode is a deal breaker.
Steve's Opinion - Usually you are going to sacrifice a lot for an underwater machine but the AT Gold has all the features of an above water detector and is waterproof. It also weighs less than many dry land units. There are optional coils, a real rarity in underwater detectors. Garrett has above water and underwater headphones for the unit, but an optional adapter will let you use you old favorites. There is a speaker for above water use that can be safely submerged - a genuine first. And best of all, ground balancing 18 kHz operation with a true threshold based all metal mode. I have found gold nuggets with this detector and it would be an excellent choice for jewelry detecting in fresh water lakes. Note that the AT Gold is too hot for use on wet salt sand or in salt water. For salt water Garrett makes the AT Pro, a toned down version of the AT more geared to coin and jewelry detecting. My bottom line on the AT Gold is that for dry land use I prefer to forgo special o-ring coil and headphone connectors. They are silicone lubricated and want to collect dirt. But for detecting in and around fresh water streams or in heavy rain the unit is a no-brainer. If you want to mask and snorkel for gold with a VLF detector this is the unit to get. Just do not forget to get the waterproof headphones also. If hot rocks are a problem, look at the Garrett Infinium or ATX below. A Steve's Pick.
Steve's Opinion - I like the X-Terra 705 very much indeed. It has a very powerful all-metal Prospecting Mode. The X-Terra 705 offers both ground tracking and manual ground balance; I like having both options. I particularly like its very compact and lightweight design. What really sets the X-Terra 705 apart however is all its other features. The X-Terra 705 is a good choice for somebody who wants all the coin and jewelry detecting options important to urban detectorists. It has discrimination and tone options equaling far more expensive detectors. This is the machine for somebody who really wants all the features a top end detector offers and still have a good prospecting detector. A Steve's Pick.
Steve's Opinion - What can I say? The MXT has found many hundreds of ounces of gold at Ganes Creek, Alaska. While not as hot on tiny gold as it's cousin, the GMT, the MXT actually is smoother operating in mixed hot rocks than the GMT, allowing faint signals from large, deep nuggets to be more easily discerned. For hunting hot ground the 6" x 10" DD coil is a better choice than the stock concentric coil while the 4" x 6" Shooter DD coil is the way to go to enhance the MXTs small gold capability. The MXT All Pro is the best option as the Ground Grab button alone is worth the few extra dollars but the standard MXT is every bit as good as a nugget detector. Bottom line is if you want a safe choice in a general purpose (nuggets, coins, beach, relics, etc.) machine you need look no farther than the MXT. My only complaint with the MXT is White's has not kept up with the times and the 4.3 lb. MXT is considerably heavier than other options now available.
Steve's Opinion - The GMT features both automatic ground tracking or fully adjustable manual ground balance, your choice and a real plus on the GMT. One of the most common problems people have with detectors is in getting the ground balance right. There are also areas where wildly varying ground mineralization makes constant manual retuning a chore. The automatic ground balance on the GMT lets a beginner get up and running quickly. It offers the pro the ability to deal with rapidly varying ground. And yet for those times when you need manual ground balance to really tweak the detector, the GMT has it also. The GMT always tracks the ground conditions, even when in manual mode, and so while in manual adjusting the ground balance can be as simple as hitting the "Grab" button. The LCD based "iron probability" readout offers more subtle iron discrimination than the all or nothing audio id on other units. The GMT rivals the Gold Bug 2 on small gold, and clearly outperforms it for depth on larger gold in highly mineralized ground. If you are looking for a combination of superb small gold capability combined with good depth on larger gold plus ease of operation the GMT is an excellent choice.
Steve's Opinion - An excellent example of a niche machine that excels at one task. The Gold Bug 2 has extreme sensitivity to small gold combined with what I feel is the best physical design of any nugget detector on the market. Lightweight, tough, and convertible from rod mount to chest or hip mount. Its main drawback is that it gets poor depth on larger gold in mineralized ground. As in poorer than any other nugget detector listed here. It is also a harder for beginners to learn than newer units since it has no automatic ground tracking or ground "grab" options. The GMT above is a better choice for all around performance. But if mastered and paired with the small 6" coil no detector will hit smaller gold. The Gold Bug 2 has a particularly effective "Iron ID" mode that not only rejects iron targets but many iron hot rocks. I consider my Gold Bug 2 my "go to" detector if I simply want to find some gold. I can hit tiny pieces weighing less than 1/10th grain with the 6" coil. A Steve's Pick.
Steve's Opinion - The Fisher F19 is basically an improved Fisher Gold Bug Pro. The backlight and extra ferrous trash handling capability are pluses, as it the volume control and ability to save settings when shut off. For me however the main attraction is the stock coil. The 5" x 10" DD is the coil that in my opinion should be stock on a Gold Bug Pro but is not. It is the coil most people would prefer for general prospecting use but the only way to get it with a Gold Bug Pro is as part of a two coil package that costs as much as the F19. I think getting the F19 with the proper coil plus extra features may be a better option for some people and so I recommend it as an alternative the Gold Bug Pro.
Steve's Opinion - I had an opportunity to use the new Nokta FORS Gold and was surprised to find it is one of the most full featured and capable VLF prospecting detectors on the market. It has the ability to display target id information while in all metal prospect mode and offers advanced ground handling capability. You have the choice of a button based ground grab method, true manual ground balance, of full automatic ground tracking. The Nokta FORS Gold is therefore able to handle ground conditions as well or better than any other VLF prospecting detector currently available. The discrimination options are excellent by prospecting standards but fairly basic for other uses. The only caveat at this time is the lack of widespread dealer and service support in the US.
Steve's Opinion - I have used the F75 Special Edition for several years and found quite a few ounces of gold with it. I like that is light in weight and superbly balanced. The F75 is closely related to the Teknetics T2, another product by First Texas (Fisher's parent company). The T2 is one of the most popular prospecting detectors sold overseas. The bottom line is that the F75 and T2 are both very capable prospecting detectors but you are paying for a lot of features that go unused when prospecting. If you need the extra features these detectors may be worth the extra money but otherwise less expensive options above, like the Gold Bug Pro, will serve most prospectors better.
VISIT THE DETECTOR PROSPECTOR FORUM FOR EXPERT ADVICE!
Steve's Opinion - The Eureka Gold with its three selectable frequencies will handle a wider range of ground conditions than most other VLF detectors. For a 60 kHz detector, it for some reason lacks the edge of the Gold Bug 2 or GMT when it comes to the smallest nuggets. Its best setting is the 20 kHz mode, as the detector seems optimized for this frequency. You will lose depth in the 60 kHz mode and so this mode should only be used for small shallow gold. The Eureka is a good detector, but lighter and less expensive detectors will do just as well for most people. The weight and high price is making the Eureka hard to recommend.
Steve's Opinion - I like the Infinium, and bought the first production machine in Alaska. The real selling point on the Infinium is that it is waterproof, and with optional underwater headphones can be totally submerged. This makes it the PI machine to have for working in and around water if you need ground balancing PI capability i.e. real hot ground or bad hot rocks. Just remember that for mask and snorkel work you need the optional waterproof headphones. It is basically a waterproof alternative to the White's TDI at about the same price, and with similar performance. At the moment Garrett has the water prospecting market cornered between the AT Gold and Infinium and now the new ATX below. Note that all share the same waterproof headphones. Be aware that a good VLF may serve as well for less money. See my note about PI units above.
A note on PI detectors. It is important to note the TDI is a pulse induction (PI) unit, like the Garrett Infinium and ATX plus the Minelabs below. This means it has rudimentary discrimination compared to VLF units. It is best to view PI units as all-metal, dig-it-all detectors. They do have some limited discrimination capability, but it is not why you get a PI unit. Depth in extreme mineralized ground and an ability to ignore difficult hot rocks are the selling points. In addition, most PI units have poor sensitivity to small gold compared to VLF units, and so someone with less expensive VLF unit can run circles around someone with a PI unit at low mineral locations. I tend to consider PI units as elephant hunting guns, best used when larger nuggets are known to be lurking in an area. New PI detectors are challenging my perception in that regard however. Some areas demand PI detectors regardless of gold size due to extreme mineralization and/or hot rocks. My basic recommendation for most people is use a VLF when you can, and use a PI when you have to. You first clue to when this will be is when you basically can't get your VLF to work properly due to ground and hot rock conditions. In much of the US a good VLF is perfectly suitable and often a better choice than a PI. However the western US and most of Australia has places where a PI is an absolute necessity.
Steve's Opinion - The TDI SL has a unique set of features and performance at a very reasonable price point. The fact that it is compatible with the large base of existing Minelab PI prospecting coils is a huge plus. The extra adjustability and coil options gives the TDI a leg up on its direct competitor, the Garrett Infinium. The less expensive SL is much lighter than the Pro version and although it lacks a bit of depth compared to the TDI Pro model it has a smoother threshold. For that extra inch get the TDI Pro listed below but the SL gets you most of the bang for $500 less. I honestly like the TDI SL a lot because of its weight but I wish it had more horsepower. Be aware that a good VLF may serve as well for less money - see the note above.
Steve's Opinion - The XP DEUS like the V3i below has a dedicated prospecting mode called the Goldfield Program. Also like the V3i the XP DEUS is a fantastic piece of technology, programmable for many detecting tasks, and ground breaking in its use of wireless technology. The XP DEUS is currently regarded as one of the best detectors available for working exceptionally trashy locations and for this reason it may be good from extracting gold nuggets around old camp sites and other locations littered with nails and other junk. The extreme light weight certainly appeals. Still, this is not a detector I would buy specifically for prospecting. The Goldfield program is not exceptional in any way and the entire detector being incorporated in the coil makes extra coils very expensive. There are no nook and cranny small coil options. If all you want is a prospecting detector there are better options for less.
Steve's Opinion - The V3i has a dedicated Prospecting Mode and can be run at a relatively hot 22 kHz. Because it costs more, many people assume it must be even better than the MXT for prospecting. That, however, is not the case. The V3i was designed first and foremost as a powerful coin detecting machine. The MXT is based on the GMT circuit therefore has a superior ground tracking system. The bottom line is the V3i is a fantastic piece of technology, but the vast majority of the features you are paying for are not needed for nugget detecting. The V3i can certainly find gold nuggets but if prospecting is going to be one of the main goals then many of the other detectors mentioned here would serve as well or better for less money.
Steve's Opinion - The TDI Pro is better suited for extreme mineral conditions than the TDI SL and offers better battery life as it comes with rechargeable Lithium-Ion batteries. It also comes set up for hip or chest mounting, which is good because it weighs much more than the SL. I have a TDI and it is a very good detector. It is very hard for me to decide at this point which detector offers the best alternative at a lower price than a Minelab GPX 5000, the TDI or the newer Garrett ATX below. My take at the moment is if you do not need waterproof the TDI weighs less and costs less and has the better coil selection. The ATX below is waterproof and easier to operate with an edge in performance overall.
Steve's Opinion - The ATX is a great addition to my working collection of detectors. It is a substantial step up from the Infinium in features and performance. The ATX is a very versatile detector and fully capable of almost any task a person wants to use it for. In my case that will be mostly in water and underwater use as like most waterproof detectors it weighs more than normal. At 6.9 lbs. it is one of the heaviest detectors I have ever used and the included sling is a must for any above water use for more than a few hours. The ATX is a superior beach and water detector and one of the best pulse induction nugget detectors currently available. It is sensitive to gold nuggets weighing as little as 0.1 gram. I would say the small gold capability is exceptional for a PI detector. And there can be no denying it is also one of the coolest looking detectors I have ever owned! As I note above with the TDI it is a tough call overall but based on my use of the ATX so far I would have to call it the best value going in a ground balancing PI at the moment, especially in the United States. I just wish a lighter weight version made specifically for prospecting was available.
Steve's Opinion - I have used the Minelab SDC 2300 for a season now and I must say I am very impressed. The waterproof compact design is perfect for hardcore backpack style prospecting. The main thing however is that the SDC 2300 comes as close to VLF type performance on small gold as you can get while being almost impervious to the ground mineralization and hot rock issues that plague said VLF detectors. In fact, the SDC 2300 will find gold nuggets smaller than most good VLF detectors can detect even under favorable conditions. The SDC 2300 is also one of the simplest detectors to use and master on the market. The main caveat is that the detector is optimized for small gold and so other ground balancing PI detectors are a better option for large nuggets at depth. It is also nearly twice the price of the Garrett ATX above and so you are paying quite a premium for a bit better performance on small gold. Still, I have to say that at this time the SDC 2300 has actually become my primary true prospecting detector. If I do not know anything about the ground mineralization or nature of the gold in advance, in my opinion the SDC 2300 offers me the best chance at determining if there is any gold at all to be found in a new location. It is an excellent choice for pure blue-sky prospecting, the only exception being where ground coverage and therefore large coils are desired.
Steve's Opinion - It is simple. If getting the most possible depth on multi-ounce gold nuggets is what you want, then the Minelab GPX detectors are the standard to beat. They also rival many VLF detectors for small gold sensitivity. It can handle ground conditions and hot rocks that bring other detectors to their knees. These are the detectors of choice for professional nugget hunters, and many recreational hunters worldwide. A big caveat, however. In many gold fields, with low mineralization, high trash, and small gold, a good VLF detector may actually do as well or better than a PI unit for far less money. See my note on PI units farther up on this page. But for most gold bearing locations around the world this is the machine to have. If I had to own one and only one prospecting detector, it would be a Minelab GPX 5000. A Steve's Pick.
A note on multi-frequency detectors: Most VLF detectors process a single frequency which is quoted as a key specification on gold nugget detectors. In general, higher frequencies are more sensitive to small gold. There are detectors on the market that process multiple frequencies, most notably a number of Minelab models (ETRAC, CTX 3030) but also a few other manufacturer models such as the Fisher CZ-3D or White's V3i. There is an assumption made that these units will detect gold nuggets as well as single frequency detectors because they do process some higher frequency signals. For various reasons this does not prove to be the case. Although these models can certainly find gold items none of them are any better than most general purpose coin detectors at finding gold nuggets. In fact, they are usually a poorer choice. The V3i is a special instance because unlike the Minelab or Fisher multi-frequency detectors it can also be run on any single frequency, in this case the 22 kHz frequency for gold. The lesson here is do not fall for marketing hype and believe that multi-frequency offer the best performance on all targets. They do not.
If I can offer one final word of advice, it would be to pay particular attention to what experienced nugget hunters are using in any particular region. Do not assume you are going to outsmart them and find some model they have not already tried and set aside as less than optimum. Serious prospectors in any particular location will end up focusing on certain units that do the job. In areas of extreme mineralization this is usually a PI detector. In areas with less mineralization and lots of ferrous trash VLF units often are preferred. If you can discover what models the locals prefer it will give you a head start in knowing what to use yourself. Above all, whatever detector you finally choose, dedicate yourself to mastering it. It takes at least 100 hours of detecting to become proficient with a detector model. Any less, and you are still practicing. Knowing your detector well is more important than what particular model of nugget detector you own.
I have decided to add something new for 2015. The list above has grown so much over the years that even it is really too long for some people. So I have decided to just pick my favorites in the three essential categories that I think every serious prospector should consider:
1. The super hot VLF
Category one is the hot induction balance detector for finding tiny gold nuggets no other detector can find. These would be detectors running over 30 kHz. Contenders are the Fisher Gold Bug 2 at 71 kHz, Minelab Eureka Gold at 60 kHz, and White's GMT at 48 kHz. My pick is the Fisher Gold Bug 2 with 6" coil. It is lightweight, tough, and gets the job done.
Category two is the medium frequency "do-it-all" VLF. The main goal here is to have a detector that can handle bad ground, be hot on gold, and do a good job of discriminating out ferrous trash. These would be the good tailing pile detectors. They are also the detector for a person wanting one machine only to cover many different detecting tasks, like coin or jewelry detecting. The potential contenders list is very long - see above. I am going to narrow it to three by applying a filter. The machine must sell for under $1000, have a ground grab plus manual ground balance option, and weigh three pounds or less with batteries. The winners are the Fisher Gold Bug Pro (19 kHz, 5" DD coil, 2.5 lbs.), the Garrett AT Gold (18 kHz, 8" x 5" DD coil, 3 lbs.), and the Minelab X-Terra 705 Gold (18.75 kHz, 10" x 5" DD coil, 2.9 lbs.).
Of those three I would rate the Gold Bug Pro and AT Gold as perhaps the better prospecting units. The X-Terra 705 really strikes me more as a detector with features normally seen in much more expensive detectors. So there is kind of a basic, medium, and deluxe thing going on here, with the Gold Bug Pro being very basic, the X-Terra 705 being very deluxe, and the AT Gold being right in the middle, and waterproof. One of those options should fit anybody. A possible new contender for the list is on the horizon in the form of the new Makro Gold Racer. Stay tuned.
Category three is a detector to handle the worst hot rocks and bad ground. For many serious detectors this will be the primary unit, the one the gold find gold with. The obvious choice here is a Minelab GPX model (GPX 4000, 4500, 4800, 5000).
Steve's Short List of The Prospecting Metal Detectors January 2015
Fisher Gold Bug 2 with 6" Coil (small gold sniper, category 1)
So there you are. Hopefully this helps some people out. I can be found daily on the Detector Prospector Forum and would be pleased to answer any questions you have on metal detecting and prospecting. Also check out Steve's Guide to Metal Detecting for Gold Nuggets.
Steve's Mining Journal