The History of Metal Detecting and Detector Manufacturers – Bill Mahan, Sr. and D-Tex Metal Detectors

Treasure hunting has been a popular and frequently engaged-in activity… all around the world by people from all walks of life long before the concept of electronic machines/instruments that could detect buried metals underneath the surface of the soil came into being.  The closest thing to “metal detectors” for the past several hundred years was devices based on what is called “dowsing” such as dowsing rods and the Spanish Dip Needle.  The science needed to absolutely prove these devices would work for everyone was theorized in many different ways… but none never proven… to this very day.  So, treasure hunters spending time and money to search for buried precious metals remained a very tiny percentage of those who engaged in outdoor activities of any serious type. 

It would not be not until World War 2 that the invention and use of metal detectors began to have a serious presence in the world.  Not surprising, that presence first appeared in the military as cumbersome instruments with large and heavy batteries that were manufactured and put in the hands of soldiers to be used to detect unexploded land mines.

After the war was over, the military had more of those mine detectors than they needed and so they were sold off to the public as war surplus for a fraction of their cost to the government starting in the late 1940’s.  Some professional… or very serious amateur… treasure and relic hunters, bought mine detectors and began to use them to hunt treasures… and Civil War artifacts.  Well, the cumbersome and hard to use devices DID work and some treasure caches were found as were a LOT of Civil War artifacts like cannonballs and rifles because the many battle and camp sites that could be accessed, back then, had never heard the beep of a detector and they were “virgin ground” for a group of relic hunters probably only numbering a few dozen.

Time passed and privately manufactured detectors began to appear on the market and they were quickly bought by those using the mine detectors… and others who had seen what was being found with them.  The new metal detectors used much smaller batteries and weighed only a few pounds compared to the very heavy mine detectors. These first detectors specifically built for coin, treasure cache and artifact hunting had no discrimination, no ground balancing capability, no pinpointing buttons and no adjustable shafts… it was “one length fits all.”   Nonetheless, they looked and performed good enough to create a growing demand for more and better designs with added features. Back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, there were so many “virgin sites” full of lost treasures… both big and small and artifacts by the MILLIONS, that the lack of all the sophisticated features that we now take for granted on the detectors we use, were not a problem for the hunters of that time.  Those out detecting seldom saw any others detecting and land owners were much more likely to say yes than no back then because they had not had any negative experiences with detectorists. 

By the time the 60’s rolled around, there were several American companies producing metal detectors.  Almost all were a type called BFO, or Beat Frequency Oscillator.  Names like Fisher and Whites were on the scene with detectors for sale but Garrett would not come into existence until 1966. 

One man who had an avid passion for metal detecting and… who had found… and still was finding…  Spanish coins on Padre Island by the dozens, outlaw loot caches in Oklahoma, and Civil War artifacts in Arkansas, was William “Bill” Mahan, Sr.  Bill Mahan, from the very start, was a true “land pirate,” as I have chosen to describe him, who had, along with his love for finding treasure of all sorts, a P.T. Barnum/Mel Fisher type of personality.  He was a Promoter extraordinaire who cut a colorful “character” image and who instinctively knew how to make the readers of his treasure hunting articles beg for more.  He made his followers believe that they could find real treasures just like he did. When, in the early sixties, he founded D-Tex Electronics in a suburb of Dallas, TX., and began to manufacture metal detectors with the improvements he had envisioned for his own use, his treasure finder “wannabees” lined up to buy every unit he could produce.  With a keen eye for business, and a willingness to “exaggerate” in his advertising efforts, he realized that the potential for finding REAL treasure in the MARKETING of metal detectors was even more sure than his occasional treasure finds out in the field. 

Few people alive today know how Bill Mahan got the money to start D-Tex and become a most important detector manufacturer for a number of years. During those years, he would constantly improve his line of detectors designed for the hobbyist and manufacture units for the professional treasure hunters also.  I am one of those few who knows how he got started in the detector business… I got the story from one of his close relatives… and I am going to share it with you. 

I do not know what kind of detector he was using when he first got into treasure hunting but at some point in his adventures, he got it in his mind that he wanted to find a Civil War cannonball.  He did a little research and learned that the one of the closest big battlefields to Dallas, that offered the chance of finding Civll War relics was a place on the Saline River called Jenkins Ferry.  Bill did not research the details of the battle and thus did not know that the river was flooded and the water covered the flood plain for almost two miles wide to a depth of about 2 feet.  The river itself with its banks was about 10 feet deep and so the retreating Union army force had to build a pontoon bridge across the river itself before they could cross it. Most of the army was sent back from the river crossing about a mile in the direction they had come from and engaged the arriving Confederate forces in pursuit about a mile from the river itself.  The road through the river bottoms was flooded so using artillery was difficult because they could not pull off the road into the fields without getting stuck in the softer soil.  So, the Yankees deployed two pieces of artillery in the road and each piece fired one round and… sunk up to their cannon barrels in the flooded road.  The artillerists managed to extricate their big guns from the muck and retreated immediately back to the river crossing.  The Rebs had no artillery in the bottoms so only two shots were fired from cannons in the entire battle.  That meant that Jenkins Ferry battlefield was probably the worst battlefield in hundreds of miles to try to find a cannonball with a metal detector.

Well, Bill Mahan did not know that and… he also did not know the battlefield was a mile from the river crossing. 

So… he started hunting around the river crossing, itself, and got a signal he thought might be a cannonball.  Digging down about 18” his shovel, he heard the satisfying “clunk” of steel shovel on cast iron. Reaching down to the bottom of the hole and brushing aside the sandy dirt with fingers, he saw rusty iron and could see that it was rounded.  He thought sure he had his Civil War cannonball and went back to work with his shovel, eager to get it out of the ground.  But… the more he dug, the bigger it seemed to be. He saw it had three pointed pieces of iron projecting from the surface in a triangle and suddenly realized that what he had found was an old cast iron cooking pot upside down.  Disappointed, he started to fill in his hole and just leave it there.  Then… he got to thinking that his wife liked old antiques like that pot and decided to dig it on out and take it home to her.  From the top of the pot on down, it was embedded in clay… not sand.  It took Bill an hour to dig all the way down to where he could get his fingers under the lip of the pot and lift it out of the hole.  When he did, he got the surprise of his life!  The upside down pot was covering a cache of U.S. gold coins!   That cache would be sold for $60,000 (Figure at today’s prices, worth 10 times that!) and the funds from the sale would be what funded the founding of D-Tex Electronics. 

Of interest to note, Charles Garrett would work for Bill Mahan for a time before starting to manufacture his own brand of detectors.  I am sorry that I cannot be more specific on dates, as far as how long Bill Mahan was involved with the company or when he died. That info, I cannot find online.  At some point, he turned the operation over to his son, Bill Mahan, Jr. whom was a personal friend of mine.  Bill Jr. was a really nice guy but very different in personality to his “land pirate/promoter” father, Bill Sr.  He did not have the flair for promoting his products… or keeping them updated in order to command a serious place in the national market.  D-Tex fell into decline and Bill Jr. sold it to Frank Ball.  With my substantial help, the line of D-Tex detectors was greatly upgraded to match or slightly exceed the Garrett line in 1980.  The future was starting to look rosy again for D-Tex metal detectors and I had helped market the new line and we were 800 units backordered.  Sadly, the new owner proved incapable of meeting production goals and a “whole lot of work went to waste for want of a little bit more.”  D-Tex ceased all production and went out of business.

Before you go on to the photo section of this post, I want to mention that my very first metal detector purchase in 1972 was a D-Tex BFO Koin King detector with Discrimination… a brand new feature on detectors back then.  I paid  $110 for it and… it worked well!  It would only go about 4 inches deep on a penny in average soil but it DID discriminate well and we no longer had to dig every signal… most of which were junk metal items. On a bigger coin like a quarter, you could get at 6 or 7 inches and at that time, the parks and school grounds were still full of coins to find.  My second purchase of a detector, 2 years later would be a Garrett Groundhog and with that detector I was able to go back to the places I had hunted with the Koin King and find a lot more coins at deeper depths. 

In this article, I really want to try to focus your attention on the Marketing Genius of Bill Mahan, Sr. so I am posting with this article pics of one of his entire sales catalogs that date back to the early 60’s. I should mention that although full-color technology in the printing field was available at the time, it was relatively new and often magazine and catalogs publishers could not afford to print the entire publication in full-color.  Bill Mahan compromised by printing his catalog cover in full color and the inside pages in black and white with bold red color used for emphasis on key words and statements. Take the time to read his articles and note his advertising… that catalog brought a LOT of people through the front doors of his dealers and the factory eager to buy one of his detectors.  One example of his marketing talent is seen in the detector he named “THE PROFESSIONAL.”  It probably cost $30 more to build than the other models and he sold it for more than twice the price of the other high-end models he offered to the hobbyists.  Naming it THE PROFESSIONAL was sheer marketing genius! When potential buyers saw it and the name on it, just buying a much cheaper detector for occasional use wasn’t good enough.  They readily forked over all that extra dough so they could have the detector that the “professionals” used.

Examine Bill Mahan’s treasure hunting articles I post here and you will see the power they had to make ordinary people believe that they could take his detectors and actually find treasures that would make them wealthy.  The great anomaly in this is that virtually 100% of promoters like Bill Mahan, are NOT treasure finders, themselves.  Bill was the real deal… he FOUND treasures and promoted his products shamelessly as well. NO OTHER manufacturer, that I ever knew, came close to the treasure-finding success that Bill Mahan had.

He also had the ability to get his customers that found treasure to let themselves be photographed with it and tell the public the value of their finds… which most of us finding a treasure today would NEVER do for obvious security reasons. 

His book on finding treasure on Padre Island had me making trips down there to find my share of the Spanish coins you will see pictured in the photos that Bill found. Sadly, they made the good areas for Spanish coins part of the National Seashore and that made metal detectors off limits by the time I got there.  Nonetheless, I got to see where they were found and that was a thrill in itself… knowing that I was walking on top of Spanish treasure buried in the sand beneath me.

I feel I owe Bill Mahan, Sr., a great deal of gratitude for being a shameless promoter of his metal detectors and the hobby of treasure hunting.  He hooked me, I bought one of his detectors, found treasure with it, and over 50 years later I am still having adventures searching for and finding treasure with a metal detector.  Bill Mahan and his D-Tex metal detectors absolutely deserve a place in the “Treasure Hunters Hall of Fame” that should have been created decades ago but never has been.   

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