Reloading: Brass Cleaning and Preparation To Load

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The only real brass cleaning requirement is to get dirt and grit removed, but it doesn't hurt to make it nice and shiny too.

The only real brass cleaning requirement is to get dirt and grit removed, but it doesn’t hurt to make it nice and shiny too.

 

SERIES

Part 1: Want to Reload Your Own Ammo? Basic Questions to Consider

Part 2: The Reloading Process
Part 3: The Gear You’ll Need and What It’ll Cost You

Part 4: Brass Cleaning and Preparation to Load

Part 5: Brass Resizing

Part 6: Trimming Cartridge Cases

Part 7: Repriming the Cartridge Case

Part 8: Powder, Propellants, and Pressure

Part 9: All About Primers

Part 10: Projectiles: Materials, Weights, and Styles

Part 11: Seating and Crimping Bullets

Part 12: To Crimp or not to Crimp

Part 13: Final Inspection and Packaging Tips

The most important step in brass cleaning and preparation is to hoard like those people who get their interventions filmed for TV. Every time you go to a range that allows, pick up the brass. 95% of it will be pristine, once-fired brass. If you shoot at a club, it’s likely that a higher percentage will be reloaded, but as long as you inspect and load it to moderate, not maximum, power levels, it’s good to grovel and fight for that too. Even if you’re just thinking about taking up reloading, start your brass collection now – it’s the most expensive component, so the more you get free, the better.

In this episode, we’re going to cover the ways you can turn that recycled range brass into ready-to-load cartridge cases. Ready?

The Paint Bucket Method

When we discussed equipment needs, I mentioned that you don’t “need” brass cleaning equipment. It’s really a want. You need to clean it enough to make it safe and reliable by getting the loose dirt and powder residue off, but making it shiny is what it sounds like – a cosmetic preference.

If you’ve got a plastic bucket with a lid, you can add water and a little bit of Tide and shake away to your hearts content. That’ll be enough to get the loose grime off. Some people like to use various combinations of vinegar, dish soap, and Lemi-Shine with the washing method, so feel free to experiment. Just be sure to rinse your brass after using other cleaning additives.

There are only two drawbacks to the shake and rinse method: the brass may not look pristine and you’ll have to thoroughly dry it before proceeding to the next reloading step. Since it applies to a couple of cleaning methods discussed here, we’ll address ways to dry brass in a section later in this article.

The Tumbling Method

Dry tumbling can clean and polish your brass. The basic idea is that you fill a vibrating bowl or drum with cleaning “media” like crushed walnut shells or corn cob bits and throw your brass in with it. After a couple of hours of vibration, the friction rubs the dirt and stains off of the brass and it comes out pretty clean and shiny.

On the plus side, tumbling is tried and true. It’ll clean your brass perfectly well. You also won’t need to worry about drying it as the whole process is dry.

A vibrating tumbler will get your brass clean. The dryer sheets shown here help collect some of the dirt so the cleaning media lasts longer.

A vibrating tumbler will get your brass clean. The dryer sheets shown here help collect some of the dirt so the cleaning media lasts longer.

On the down side, the dirt has to go somewhere and that somewhere is that it sticks to the cleaning media. That means you’ll have to change out your media frequently. It’s possible to wash and dry some types of cleaning media, but that topic is for another day.

You will need to make sure all the bits of cleaning media are out of the cartridge cases before reloading. Some dry tumblers have a way to let the media drain out, leaving mostly brass. Or, you can use a separator that lets the cleaning media drain into a bucket.

Pro Tip: Sort before you tumble!

You can buy ready to go cleaning media for brass or you can use bulk stuff like crushed walnut shells or corn cobs.

You can buy ready to go cleaning media for brass or you can use bulk stuff like crushed walnut shells or corn cobs.

If you clean your brass with a tumbler, sorting it first can save you a ton of headache. Here’s the gotcha. If you throw a bunch of pistol brass of varying calibers into a tumbler, the smaller ones, like .32, .380 and 9mm will get stuck inside the larger ones like .40 and .45. Sometimes, you can even end up with a three-way, even though that’s illegal in some states. The vibration of the tumbler works the cleaning media in between these nested cases so they end up as tightly bonded as those nut jobs on The View.

Before tumbling, I dump a pile of range pick up brass onto a towel or old sheet on the floor. By hand, I grab all the rifle cartridges and throw them into one bucket. Rifle cartridges generally don’t have the nesting problem, so you can tumble them all together and sort them once they’re clean.

Then I filter off (again by hand, and there’s a reason for this) the rimmed cartridges like .44 Special, .44 Magnum, .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .45 Colt. I throw the .44s and .45s in one bucket as they can be tumbled together. The .38s and .357s can also be cleaned together. Both are easier to separate into their proper calibers once clean.

Last I have a pile of .45, .40, 9mm, .380 ACP, .32 ACP, .357 Sig and probably some .22LR that got in there. Here’s where the technology of plastic comes into play. Get yourself a set of Shell Sorter trays from Brownells. These have sized slots in the bottom that let certain calibers fall through to the next tray. Between the set of three, you’ll easily separate a mountain of pistol brass into .45, .40 / .357 Sig, and 9mm in no time. The smaller stuff falls through all so you can grab .32s by hand and throw away the rimfire stuff and cigarette butts. An optional metal plate helps you separate .380 ACP from 9mm. Oh, the reason I hand pick the rimmed cartridges like .44 and .38 Special out? They get caught in the right sorting tray, but you have to pick them out of the slots. It’s easier to deal with them first as they’re easy to spot in the pile.

Ultrasonic Cleaning

Like jewelry cleaners, ultrasonic cleaners use water and detergent. Sound waves vibrate the solution, with your brass inside, theoretically breaking loose the dirt and grime and releasing it into the water.

While most ultrasonic cleaners are fairly small, the cleaning cycle is fast, usually minutes, so you can move through a lot of brass quickly. It’s also easy to dump dirty water and replace it with fresh after a couple of loads. You won’t need to worry about making sure cleaning media is removed from your cases as there is none.

Since the cycle time is fast, even a small ultrasonic cleaner like this one can handle a lot of brass quickly.

Since the cycle time is fast, even a small ultrasonic cleaner like this one can handle a lot of brass quickly.

On the down side, brass doesn’t get as clean with this method. It’ll be perfectly safe and usable, but I’ve never gotten as good a result as with friction-oriented cleaning methods like tumbling. You’ll also have to dry the brass.

Wet Tumbling

A Lyman Cyclone Rotary Tumbler.

A Lyman Cyclone Rotary Tumbler.

I think the Mac Daddy method of professional brass cleaning is wet tumbling. Rather than a vibrating bowl, a wet tumbler uses a rotary motion like those old rock tumbling machines from way back. You fill a drum with water, cleaning solution, your brass, and stainless steel pins and place it on the rotary tumbling motor. This spins the drum for a couple of hours, forcing the steel pins and detergent to scrub the living crap out of your brass.

Wet tumblers use stainless steel pins for cleaning media - it lasts forever if you don't lose them.

Wet tumblers use stainless steel pins for cleaning media – it lasts forever if you don’t lose them.

Your brass will get really, really clean – like factory new. The capacity of rotary wet tumblers can go to 1,000 .223 cases per load, so it’s efficient for larger volumes. The tiny steel pins will get inside the cases and even clean out primer pockets and flash holes if you deprime the cases first. Since you’re using fresh water and soap for each load, the dirt doesn’t accumulate or stick to the stainless pin media as with dry tumbling methods. Finally, the pins last forever provided you don’t lose them so you’re not constantly buying new cleaning media.

On the negative side, you need to sift the pins from the cartridges and dry the brass. You can use a media separator like the ones for dry tumbling to do this. You can also remove the steel pins from the pile of brass using a large release magnet. Since the brass is not magnetic, only the steel pins are drawn out.

If you want to see it in action, check out this short video from the folks at Midsouth Shooters Supply:

Drying Wet Brass

To dry wet brass, and it needs to be bone dry before reloading, you can spread it out on a towel and lay it in the sun. It takes a while, especially if the brass is not spread out in a single layer. I’ve left brass in my dehumidified man cave for days and days and it still wasn’t fully dry.

This drying method is easy, but if kind of sucks. It's like watching paint dry.

This drying method is easy, but if kind of sucks. It’s like watching paint dry.

You can also warm it in an oven at low temperatures, like 200 or less if your oven does that. The chef in your home will almost certainly frown upon this activity, especially since cartridge cases tend to have toxic stuff like lead residue hanging around. If you go this route, and process enough brass to make it worthwhile, find an old yard sale or junkyard range and use that for industrial stuff only.

You can also pick up a food dehydrator at your local discount store. These circulate warm air through a series of racks and will dry your brass quickly and thoroughly. Be sure not to dehydrate any food in the same machine you use for brass! Lead-flavored banana chips aren’t nearly as good as they sound.

I’m also experimenting with using a portable roaster oven. These are like big turkey pans that plug in – kind of like a rectangular metal crock pot. They cost less than $50 and have dial settings for low enough temperatures. Just dump in a pile of wet brass, turn it on, and leave the top vents open to let moisture escape. Every now than then you can stir the brass to speed the process.

The Joys of Cleanliness

I know I said that shiny brass is a “want” and not a “need” but I have to confess I clean all my brass to a reasonably polished state. The cleaner it is, the easier it is to inspect and spot potential safety issues like cracks and bulges. There’s also the pride element. Hey, If I’m manufacturing my own ammo, I want it to look nice, right?

{ 36 comments… add one }
  • Bob Vallier June 2, 2017, 1:06 pm

    I wet tumble. After pin seperation I rinse in hot tap water, using a screened colander. Next I grab my trusty hair dryer, turn it on high, direct the hot air into the center of the brass (still in the colander) and fluff the brass. (1.) After about 5 minutes the brass is too hot to handle. I then spread it on a hand towel. Fifteen minutes later I’m reloading cleaned shiny brass. (2.) If the sun is out just spred your brass on an aluminum cookie sheet or one of those throw-away bakiing pan on a flat surface in the sun. About 20 minutes later the brass is too hot to handle. It’s time to start reloading.

  • Billybob January 17, 2017, 10:51 pm

    CM-2000 Case/Media Separator Walnut or steel does best !

  • Jordan May 24, 2016, 10:55 am

    Thanks for sharing these different methods for reloading brass. I think it can be a really fun skill for lots of gun owners to learn, and since there\’s a variety of ways to do it, there\’s probably a style out there that suits you no matter what!

  • Steve Schroeder April 16, 2016, 12:11 am

    As a commercial maker of reformed brass cf cases in calibers not available, I would like to provide some information for reloaders that would be of help. I use tumblers to first clean the dirt and corrosion from the deprimed cases. I use ground corn cob media while I use a commercial truck wheel polish for my tumblers. I use a dry twin flame annealing machine after the cases are formed(does about 800 cases per hour). I use birchwood casey liquid brass cleaner to remove the anneal stain before putting the cases in the tumblers with ground corncob media for a final shine. I recommend that you use a small tool made with a 30 cal spire point fmj bullet for small caliber cartridge cases and 50 cal for the larger calibers up to 50 cal. Drill a small hole in the base of the bullet and attach a small handle to the bullet. This will save a lot of cases that flat-based bullets are being loaded into. (works for bottle neck cases too) In swaging a lot of brass the allowances for acceptable sizes are provided by ISO 9006 available from the Commission Internationale Permanente out of belgium who are the International Standards Office for All Cartridge and Chamber Dimensions for firearms. You can look them upon the Internet. I presently make over 150 cartridge cases and over 170 jacketed bullets for non standard calibers not available at your local gun shop.

  • Oaf March 24, 2016, 1:30 am

    After wet tumbling and separating the pins, wash/rinse the brass in water as hot as you can get it. I sometimes boil up a pot of water and dump the cleaned brass in it to rinse. Drain it through a colander or whatever, shake off the excess water, then spread the hot brass on a towel. The brass usually air dries in less than 10 minutes if stood on end with primer removed.

  • Gary March 22, 2016, 11:29 am

    I use both the tumbler first with steel pins then a vibration setup with walnut / corn cob mix to dry, this stage only takes about an hour or so. Very easy once the pins are out plus it does help remove stuck pins sometimes missed.

  • J Sember March 22, 2016, 10:13 am

    Within last year, I read an article in American Handgunner which pointed out that all non-corrosive primers contain lead and investigation into the source of one guy’s elevated blood lead levels pointed to the dry tumbling cleaning method – lots of lead in that area of his reloading room that got there from separating the powdered media. Ever since, I’ve been using a wet tumbler and disposing of the very black water in a way that won’t contaminate anything (I built a filter out of a 4″ PVC pipe, sand, and activated charcoal). This is another very good reason to clean your brass using a wet method.

  • Eric X Equis March 21, 2016, 5:09 pm

    Another tip if you use the wet tumbling method –
    Take the brass separated from the media and rinsed and put inside a large bath towel. Hold closed and give it a shake.
    Then, take the brass and put it on a large baking pan lined with parchment paper and put in the oven @150-175 degrees for a couple hours. That usually does it.

  • Doug March 21, 2016, 12:39 pm

    Only a brief comment was made about lead residue. I wonder if there is some way to add Leadoff to the cleaning process and also be rid of the lead, which would make for safer handling of the brass.

  • nrb March 21, 2016, 12:03 pm

    I do NOT recommend using vinegar for cleaning brass as vinegar contains acetic acid.
    Vinegar (acetic acid) reacts with the brass metal and degrades the metal speeding the failure of the cases.

  • Ray March 21, 2016, 11:37 am

    After wet tumbling, the absolute best way to dry is on a towel placed on you shoe/sweater rack inside of your cloths dryer. This rack should have come with you dryer.

  • Mark Roach March 21, 2016, 10:40 am

    The fastest and best idea/solution yet!!!
    I got lucky and found and installed one of those commercial wall mounted hand dryers in my shop area
    (Note: some of those are 30 amp. 120v circuits, so they have a good return on instant gratification!!).
    By popping out the primers before cleaning the cases the primer pockets get cleaned thoroughly.
    After cleaning, I stand the brass upside down in reloading boxes and pass them under the wall dryer.
    One run (around 30-45 seconds) will dry 50+ cases with a single push and they are very warm to touch.
    Popping out the primers allows the air to pass thru the casing and voila, its dry!!!

    • Tom McHale March 21, 2016, 12:12 pm

      I never would have thought of that, thanks for sharing! I’m guessing the air is hot enough to dry the water from the bottom of the ammo box under the upside down cases?

    • Steve Dahlen March 21, 2016, 10:21 pm

      I dry cases in a very similar fashion, except that I stand them up against the mirror in our bathroom (any vertical support would do) placing them on top of a dry sponge or paper towel. This acts as a wick. No heater or dryer necessary. Drys completely in about 24 hours.

  • lst March 21, 2016, 10:25 am

    I know the present subject is not dealing with the cost of reloading but my present problem is with the cost of it.
    To start with as a new reloader wanna be I will completely disregard the cost of the starting equipment and coming directly to the cost of the necessary supplies of reloading target/plinking .308 cartridges. Even more to cost lowering; I already have 1000 pieces of once fired reloadable brass. So what I need is (cheap) FMJ bullets, large primer and rifle powder for the 1000 rounds. The cost of these as I found them on the Internet is; 1000 pieces of .308 150 grain Remington bullets $337.50, Primer, large 1000 pieces; $ 32.99, and Hogdon rifle powder approx., 6 lb’s for $ 130.00. Totaling approx. $ 500.00 w/o the tentative cost of shipping. When compared this to the cost of 1000 pieces of cheap new Aguila .308 cartridges in boxer primed reloadable brass of $ 565.00 delivered, there is no real cost savings in reloading. While I would have the time and the inclination, I am asking myself why bother? The same no advantage in cost saving would apply even more to reloading 9 mm Luger also. Anybody out there having any thoughts, advise on the subject of the cost of reloading?

    • Sco March 21, 2016, 11:41 am

      It’s possible to find much better deals than what you have presented. However the real benefit to reloading comes in the form of much more consistent (and eventually accurate) ammunition given the appropriate care. A better comparison would be to match grade action that averages $1+ per round in 308win. Just my 2¢

      • lst March 21, 2016, 12:32 pm

        Thank you for your comment/advise. I shall keep looking for better deals.

    • Tom McHale March 21, 2016, 12:16 pm

      You can also save a lot on the bullets from the price you quote above The 150-grain (and 147-grain) .308 bullets are readily available from a variety of sources and you can get them down to near half the 33 cents each price you found. Check Wideners.com – they always have a lot of mil-spec stuff in bulk and plenty of commercial too. Also TJConevera.com has great prices and lots of interesting products that pop up from time to time.

      • lst March 21, 2016, 12:37 pm

        Thank you for taking the time to respond. I shall check out the two provided websites for prices. Regards. lst

    • Tater March 21, 2016, 12:29 pm

      If you are wanting to reload strickly to save money, I would not recommend doing so. You can find deals on every popular caliber throughout the year. I personally enjoy loading my own ammunition because I know that every round has the proper components and charge. I load specific rounds for each firearm and know what to expect when I shot that ammunition. I use Berger bullets for my hunting rifles and these rounds are better than any factory load you can buy.

    • Joe McHugh March 21, 2016, 12:42 pm

      1st, I reside in the People’s Republic of New York. Our Governor, Andrew Cuomo, initiated the S.A.F.E. gun law in 2013.
      One of the onerous provisions of this law is the requirement for passing a NICS background check to buy ammunition, even a 50 count box of .22 caliber rimfire ammunition. Fortunately, the state authorities discovered that this requirement was beyond the abilities of the State of New York to administer as stipulated. Unfortunately, that provision is still on the books and the gun dealers may still be recording who is purchasing ammunition. I’m not clear about this because I buy my ammunition at a gun dealer store in Pennsylvania. I chose to keep the “trusted” politicians in Albany, NY ignorant of my Second Amendment activity. I believe that this is in their best interest so that they don’t become too confidant in moving the government rapidly toward a socialist Utopia. I like to keep these elite off balance and guessing .

      None of the reloading supplies are controlled by the S.A.F.E. gun law. This means that one could reload tons of whatever ammunition that you desire, and the state doesn’t have a clue that you are doing it. Cost is one factor, privacy from the authoritarians is another consideration.

      By the way, the state of California is considering drafting a bill similar to the S.A.F.E. gun law of New York. Did I mention that all of these miscreants are Democrats?

      • John Addams January 3, 2017, 4:24 am

        Shhhh. Don’t let them know about this stuff or it will be banned too.

    • Elvio Marchi March 21, 2016, 1:43 pm

      I believe I can compare my sloppily loaded (my estimation) rounds with the Aquilar and directly show the results of a hand load to a factory load. If all you are interested in is to hear it go bang and defer the accuracy AND precision of o round being fired, then, by all means, continue to look for the “bargains” in ammo. There is a definite reason why “match” ammo costs considerably more…even in their “bargains”.

  • bison1913 March 21, 2016, 10:04 am

    I place my clean wet brass on top of my boiler… my boiler is just as clean. I place them all flat on a solid flat cooking sheet pan and in about forty-five minutes they are all dry and spotless. I find that I don’t get that spotty and tarnish look afterwards,
    I used to… now I don’t after using this method.

    • Eric X Equis March 21, 2016, 5:14 pm

      D’OH! I just posted this method then scrolled down to see yours.
      I add parchment paper just in case last week’s pizza residue is still on the pan.
      Also, I use low heat (150-175) and let bake for an hour or so.
      I was always concerned with high heat deforming the brass somewhat.

  • Kimberpross March 21, 2016, 9:35 am

    I use the SS pins and wet tumble. Once rinsed in a colander over a 5 gal. plastic bucket, (To catch any pins that come through) I use a media separator that works surprisingly well. Occasionally on small caliber bottle neck cases, the pins will fill and lodge in one that has to be physically shaken to empty, otherwise, they completely separate. I then spread them out on a towel on the floor of the man cave under the ceiling fan, turn it on high, and they are all dry in about 24 hours, or less. (Faster if you want to take the time to stand them up) I usually do it over night. Using other drying methods, like the blow dryer, would work for quick turn around. However, that cleaning method works so well, I time my reloading process to accommodate the drying time.

  • Gala Poola March 21, 2016, 9:14 am

    “The only real brass cleaning requirement is to get dirt and grit removed”
    Not so fast . . . tumbling or vibrating with a husk media has the added benefit of leaving a fine powdery residue on the brass. This acts like a dry lubricant and makes the case slide easier through the reloading dies. If you add some polish to the media you get that extra Brasso effect and the shells slide even more smoothly through the process. And of course clean brass makes you a betters shot, just like a clean car drives better !

  • Snicker March 21, 2016, 9:09 am

    I’m using a wet tumbler that cleans my brass really well. The problem is that after drying, the brass slowly begins to tarnish, turning a reddish-copper color. I use a commercial tumbling cleaner (Lemishine) and rinse the brass well. I have tried a number of low-acid rinses like vinegar and dilute citric acid mixture which cleans it really well again, but after a thorough rinsing the brass slowly tarnishes again. I haven’t tried a “neutralizing” wash like baking soda but that may be next, if you guys don’t have any suggestions?

    Side Note: the stainless steel pins are a PITA to keep contained unless you have a release magnet and a large container to use for separation. I’ve found that a cotton rag placed over the magnet keeps the pins from tenaciously sticking to the (released) magnet.

    • j stark March 21, 2016, 9:34 am

      wet tumbling is like washing your car and then not waxing it. I soak my brass over night, with a drop of dove or joy, (no ammonia), then tumble with pins and joy and lemonshine. Shake in a bath towel and let dry. Brass if rinsed well should keep for years. After a few days drying I’ll tumble to a shinny finish which has been good up to at least 10 years in some cases.

      • Tom McHale March 21, 2016, 12:08 pm

        Hey J – Thanks for the comments. Just to clarify, are you saying that the “rinse” stage is like the “waxing” stage, meaning important to prevent the tarnishing that can sometimes happen? That seems to be what I see, important to rinse really well to get all the chemical junk off…

      • m. nicholson March 23, 2016, 8:23 pm

        I use the tumbler to dry, after ultrasonic cleaning and rinsing, the corn cob media absorbs the moisture and polishes the brass. Also damp media keeps the dust down. I add polishing compound to the media to shine the brass. Word of caution, you will need to wear sunglasses to load as it is so shiny!

    • Greg March 27, 2016, 5:36 pm

      I wet tumbled (with SS media and a few drops of Dove plus Lemishine) about 500 rounds of .40 S&W cases and they came out looking like small sections of shiny dark copper pipe. After consulting with numerous folks in the SS media tumbling arena, I learned that I had used way too much Lemishine on this batch. You only need about 1/2 teaspoon or less as a water softener. They loaded and shot fine; actually looked rather exotic. I am told they will return to the normal brass color after they are tumbled next time with just a bit of Lemishine.

  • Mr. Sparkles March 21, 2016, 9:09 am

    Thanks for the write up. Lots of good ideas and comparisons.

    I built my own brass dryer out of two #10 cans and a hair dryer. The two cans are taped together(duck tape of course!) and the bottom one has a hole in the side for the hair dryer and an open top. The top can has holes drilled in the bottom (smaller then .355 as I don’t do anything smaller then .380 or 9mm) and the plastic top has flaps cut into it to hold the air but allow for air movement. Best to have a hair dryer with a low heat setting and just let it run while you move on to other things, like de-priming more shells. Works well and speeds up the process. Happy reloading.

    • Tom McHale March 21, 2016, 12:11 pm

      Ha! That’s pretty clever! Another reader sent me a photo a while back. He made a frame to hold about a 3′ x 3′ piece of window screening horizontally. Then he mounted a box fan underneath to blow air up through the screen. Seems like maybe a good way to do a whole lot of brass at once too.

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