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Brass Cleaning Methods

Loading our own ammunition for competition really comes down to consistency and how we can repeatedly get our bullets, brass, primers, and powders back into a repeatable configuration. After all we can practice all we want but without good consistent ammunition that is as consistent as our practice routine, how can we succeed as match shooters? One of the biggest factors in reloading consistent ammunition is brass condition, it is after all the only component that is being reused. Our primers, powder, and bullets (for the most part) are all consumable and our brass is being expanded, compressed, and reshaped as it is re-used and expected to contain a controlled explosion keeping our firearms, and most importantly our bodies out of harm’s way despite having arguable to hardest job of all of our components. A big part of keeping our brass in tip top shape is keeping it clean. It is much easier to re-size, inspect, and load brass that is cleaned up to the best of our abilities. Having brass that is clean inside and out increases reliability reducing drag in our firearms that can cause jams. Clean brass also allows for a repeatable case volume which since we do not have burnt powder and carbon deposits on the inside of the case which can cause increased and potentially dangerous pressures once the case is reloaded. Clean primer pockets also making seating new primers easier and more consistent which helps ignition of the powder and helps keep muzzle velocities repeatable. Clean brass is also sized much more easily since there is less gunk to gum up our dies which can lead to inconsistencies in our sized brass and can also ruin cases during resizing or worse yet get stuck in a die potentially ruining our dies in the worst cases. Here are some of my personal experiences with different cleaning methods and hopefully this can shed a light of what method may work best for you.

My first cleaning method when I first started loading my own ammo was very crude and consisted of me loading up my brass in a milk jug with a mixture of vinegar, water, salt, and dish soap that I had found on the internet and just shaking it for as long as I could stay interested in getting clean brass. While I will say it was a cheap solution since I found I had all the ingredients on hand already and had empty milk jugs laying around for target use, it really sucked shaking a jug for an hour, especially when you were trying to process a thousand empty .223 cases. It never really cleaned very well (surprise surprise!) my cases still had crud caked on the inside and you could forget about the primer pockets being very clean. I also found that my cases seemed to tarnish pretty badly if they were not loaded right away which couldn’t have been a good sign for what the effect the process had on my brass chemically with salt and vinegar. There had to be something better so out of frustration I headed down to my local sporting goods store and bought the cheapest vibratory tumbler and some walnut tumbling media. The vibratory tumbler did clean better than my crude milk jug method, however it was still not ideal for my methods. The dust that come from the vibratory tumbler was bad, especially in limited reloading space in my garage which I shared with my wife where dust and painted crafts certainly do not mix well. I also found my reloading process being bottlenecked since I still was limited by my volume of my tumbler which granted could’ve been solved by buying a bigger tumbler, however the level of clean and separating the media and brass left me wanting. I again decided I was going to need a bigger boat.

With the experience that I was gaining as I was loading more and more of my own ammo I was beginning to appreciate how much nicer it was to handle clean brass and became a bit of a “brass snob”. So for my next effort I began researching on the internet where I could clean bigger batches of brass and have them be extremely clean. I felt I evolved coming full circle back to the more sophisticated “wet” methods and looking into and comparing ultrasonic cleaners to wet tumbling with stainless steel pins similar to how rock collectors clean their prized rocks. Both methods were going to require a bit more money to get started, however in my quest for better brass I was ready to make the jump into a higher quality clean. I was torn between both methods but ultimately heeded the cries of my reloading equipment war torn wallet and went with an ultrasonic cleaner. From my research, ultrasonic seemed to clean really well and also could pull double duty as a gun parts cleaner and at the time where I was spending a lot of time de-gunking AR-15 bolt carrier groups, and lower initial investment cost made this seem like the ultimate path to gun and gun accessory cleaning Nirvana. I picked up an ultrasonic cleaner and used an ultrasonic cleaner for quite some time and honestly it worked great for me. I was able to process larger lots of brass at a time and it got brass pretty clean, however I still had to resort to cleaning primer pockets by hand or with a primer pocket brush chucked in a drill, and found when it came time to process large lots of brass despite trying many different homemade solutions the store bought solutions seemed to work the best and it got old constantly having to buy solution. It also required some sort of drying method to keep my brass from tarnishing if it wasn’t immediately loaded. I do still however haven’t found a better gun parts cleaner!

I ultimately ended up picking up a wet tumbler and tumbling with stainless steel pins. It has been the cleanest my brass has ever been. I no longer need to clean by hand any gunk out of the case necks or primer pockets. The stainless pins can be an absolute mess and can be tough to get separated from your brass which can be mitigated of course with purchase of more tooling like media separators and magnets for picking up and handling of the extra small stainless steel pins. It still requires a drying process as well as has been the most expensive upfront cost of any cleaning system I have tried after attaining all of the accoutrements. I’ve also found that sometimes cases can sometimes come out of the tumbler with very small dings in the opening of the case necks since I usually try to tumble after I have trimmed, de-burred, and chamfered my cases to remove all case lube and brass chips stuck to my cases (I haven’t seen any ill-effect from this in my reloads just something I’ve noticed). Also I can’t help but realize typing this that I have become quite picky in my cleaning methods, but as someone who has truly tried them all (that I know of) helped save some others on wasting their money on methods that may not be best for their uses.