Part 5: Brass Resizing
Part 6: Trimming Cartridge Cases
Part 7: Repriming the Cartridge Case
Part 9: All About Primers
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?