Civil War Relic Hunting: for the Niche Metal Detecting Hobbyist

What’s the best relic hunting metal detector?

By Daniel Bernzweig

The campsites of Union or Confederate brigades or the grounds where Civil War battles took place can be treasure troves for Civil War buffs. With the right metal detector and equipment, you can be successful at recovering relics from the most monumental, direction-shifting conflict in American history. Three million soldiers took part in almost 10,000 battles; tragically some 700,000 lives were lost. The forefathers of today’s great democratic nation suffered infantry and cavalry casualties that match those of all other American wars combined. It’s no wonder that metal detecting hobbyists and Civil War enthusiasts are drawn to the art of unearthing mementos from 1861-1865. Many relic hunters say they want to preserve American history by cleaning and displaying their finds; others donate collections to historical museums.

The up-side to locating Civil War relics is: if you research and locate the coordinates of any Confederate or Union camp site, you have found the grounds where prized relics were left behind. The flip side to this: many of the plentiful relic sites from Civil War encampments have already been worked hard by numerous treasure hunters. However, advanced technology and new capabilities of metal detectors in recent years (deeper depth detection, target identification and superior ground balance controls) result in the ability to detect relics which were previously undiscovered.

Types of Civil War Relics & Where You Can Find Them

There are so many collectible Civil War items that it’s difficult to list them all. However, among the valuable relics are pieces from soldiers and officers uniforms and equipment: knapsack hooks, buttons from uniform jackets, belt plates and buckles ("CS" on the belt buckle stands for Confederate Service, "US" for Union Service), bayonets, canteens, rifle and pistol bullets and cartridge pouches which held lead bullets and cartridges filled with gunpowder.

If you look at a historical map that shows the divisions between the North and the South, you can see where the splits between the troops occurred. Many battles took place in the four Border States that were split between pro- and antislavery groups. One of the key battles here was called "Bleeding Kansas." Lawrence, Kansas was the site of a bloody battle that broke out in 1856. National Geographical Channel’s show "Diggers" features an episode in which famous detectorists Tim Saylor and George Wyant use their metal detectors to uncover bullets and other Civil War artifacts. Other key battles sites where thousands of relics are found include Antietam (Sharpsburg, MD), Gettysburg, Charleston, Atlanta, Appomattox, VA, Jackson, Petersburg, Richmond, Nashville and Savannah. And this is just to name a few! You can research your state or sites you’re interested in at the library or on the internet. The first step is to locate previous camp sites and battle grounds—getting information that is as specific as possible.

Detectors and Equipment for Civil War Relic Hunting

There are two schools of thought when it comes to choosing a metal detector and accessories. One of them is going with a good quality multipurpose detector, so you can hunt for relics and also use your metal detector to search for coins, jewelry, gold and other valuables. The other option is to select a metal detector that gives you the best possible performance for relic hunting—since that’s where your passion lies. If you are specifically shopping for a relic-hunting metal detector, allows you to "Shop by Usage" and has an expert-tested selection of metal detectors for relic hunting (in all different price ranges). Consider joining a relic hunting club or a metal detecting club to learn proper techniques and find a friend to go hunting with. Be sure to check out our metal detector club finder for contact details of a club near you!

Necessary detector features for relic hunting are advanced ground balance, discrimination (to eliminate junk targets) and the operating frequency. Typically, the grounds where Civil War relics are found (specifically the South) contain highly mineralized soil. This means that the soil can emit false signals that sound like a good target, but it’s not—and you can spend a lot of time figuring that out. To combat this, relic hunting detectors will often offer advanced ground balance controls. For example, the Garrett AT Pro (used by the "Diggers" crew) features both manual ground balance and Fast Track™ ground balance — an automatic feature that allows you to quickly ground balance the detector in mineralized soil conditions. Operating frequencies can vary based on what the detector is designed for. A gold-hunting unit will be different than a relic hunting model. For relic hunting, you’re looking for VLF (Very Low Frequency) or at least a lower frequency. Visual target ID and depth display are two helpful features. Some units feature a digital target identification scale (0-99) to help distinguish iron, brass, silver, rings/gold, coins, etc. And others are water-resistant for searching in and around rivers, streams and beaches.

Serious Civil War relic hunters always use metal detecting headphones and carry digging tools like trowels for carefully removing targets from hard-packed soil. The finds that are being made with top relic hunting metal detectors like the XP DEUS are incredible. Ronnie Hyer of Alabama located a rare silver George Washington Inaugural button with his detector. Doug Stanley of Martinsville, Indiana found a Civil War Officers Buckle with his metal detector. Caught the relic hunting bug? Below are our favorite entry-level, mid-level and high-end metal detectors for Civil War relic hunting.

Entry Level Metal Detectors:

Mid Level Metal Detectors:

High End Metal Detectors:

Top Deep Seeking Relic Metal Detectors:

See Underground Image Scans of Targets

For the first time ever, the idea of seeing underground image scans of the target has become a reality! The engineering team at DRS electronics in Germany has brought to life the DRS Ground Exper Pro. This device will show realtime image scans right before your eyes. Gold, Silver and other Valuable metals are shown in full color on a PC Tablet as the display. Junk metals like Iron are also clearly displayed. The Ground Exper Pro allows you to save target signals for later review and offers menus in eight languages.

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