Reloading Basics: Brass Cleaning
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- Last updated: 14/10/2019
Once you start making your own ammunition you will soon discover that your brass gets pretty dirty after only a few uses. The dirt will get more noticeable each time you use the brass and if left to build up it will cause problems with both reloading and firing the ammunition you produce.
Very dirty brass can become difficult to chamber because it causes friction and, if the build up is particularly bad around the case rim or the shoulder of the case, it also prevents the case from fully chambering. When the build up of dirt gets very bad it can prevent the extractor claw engaging into the rim of the case and so the case will not be ejected properly when the bolt is drawn back.
If dirty cases are put through the reloading process uncleaned, that dirt will be transferred to the dies where it will gather and make it harder to cycle cases through them. Lubricating dirty cases for resizing will cause the dirt to spread throughout the rest of the dies and can make a real mess.
The answer is to clean your cases regularly and this should be done after firing and before reloading them. There are a variety of ways to clean your brass, from a simple brushing to using a high-tech ultrasonic machine, and they are all effective to differing degrees.
If you do not shoot a lot of rounds, or if you do not have the money for a cleaning machine, then you can clean each case by hand. The authors’ very first ‘case cleaning kit’ consisted of suede cleaning brush and a piece of old denim. The brush was great for getting dirt from around the case rim and the denim was coarse enough to dislodge a lot of the soot and dirt from the outside of the cases. This is a somewhat time-consuming process but ideal when shooting only fifty or so rounds per week. This method does not clean the inside of the cases where soot can build up.
If you are cleaning a larger quantity of brass on a budget, then you can throw them in a bucket of hot soapy water and give them a good shake. This will get a lot of the dirt off, but you must remember to rinse the cases thoroughly afterwards and then get them dry. Drying wet cases is a real pain and this will be addressed later in this article.
If you do decide to ‘go electric’ then by far the most common type of equipment for this is the dry tumbler. There are many different models available, but they all operate on the same basic principle; holding the cases in a plastic container full of a dry media and vibrating them so that the media rubs the dirt off the brass. The authors very first case tumbler was a Tim Hannam ownbrand product which consisted of a plastic butty box on top of a rectangular platform shaken by two electric motors, a fantastic bit of kit that lasted over 20 years and it is sorely missed! Current models of case tumbler are generally circular and use a ‘swirling’ action to really move the cases and media around. The big advantage of this method is that the inside of the case is also cleaned, removing soot build up very well. There are different types of media available; including corn cob and crushed walnut shell and the later has proved to be most effective in recent testing. As well as cleaning the cases this method allows you to polish the brass, so it looks like new. There are products that you add to the tumbler media that give a really high-quality finish. The media will get contaminated as it traps the dirt from the cases, so it does need changing regularly.
Instead of using a vibrating action to clean the brass, wet tumblers use a rotary action to turn a drum containing the cases, water, cleaning solution and thousands of tiny steel pins. The surface of the brass is scrubbed clean by the pins and the result is very clean and shiny cases. After the cases are cleaned there is a fair bit of work involved in rinsing the cases with clean water, separating the cases from the pins, and drying the cases, so it is a time consuming business that you are not going to want to be doing every week. To help separate the cases from the pins you can buy a magnet to lift the pins out of the mix leaving the non-magnetic cases behind.
These machines also use water and detergent, but they use sound waves to vibrate the solution at high frequency instead of mechanical movement like the other types of machine, causing the dirt to break away from the cases and float in the water. These tend to be relatively small and low capacity machines, but they do work much faster than the other types of cleaner, allowing you to process batches of cases much quicker, but still needing the cases to be dried after cleaning. These are also the most expensive type of case cleaner.
With the wet-type case cleaners you do have to dry the cases very thoroughly and this can take a fair bit of time to do properly. The easiest method is to simply spread the cases out on a towel in the sun, giving them a shake regularly to dislodge any small pockets of water that might be held inside the cases. Warming the cases can speed the process up and sneaking them into the oven when it has been turned off after dinner is cooked is a good way to do this. ‘Cooking’ them in the oven is not recommended. Hot dry air will also help speed things up and using either a dehumidifier or a hair dryer significantly reduces drying times. Cases have to be absolutely bone-dry before reloading so always check a few thoroughly to ensure you have done the job properly.
The instructions that come with most case cleaning machines specify that you must deprime the cases before cleaning them. This is sensible advice, because the primer pockets are then also cleaned while the cases are being processed, but experience has shown that in some instances leaving the primers in place is best practice. When using a dry tumbler small pieces of the media have a knack of becoming wedged in the flash holes and it is a real pain to check every case and prick out all the blockages with a pin. Leaving the primers in place, and depriming afterwards means you avoid this problem and ensures that the flash holes are all cleared by the pin on the depriming die. With the wet and sonic case cleaners this is not an issue.
If you use more than one calibre of case it is well worth keeping them separate, particularly if they are significantly different sizes. The reason is that mixed cases have an uncanny knack of getting stuck inside each other, a .357 case will find its way into a 45-70 case, along with some media, and get well and truly stuck. You then have to pull them part and the case stuck inside is not cleaned.
The different types of tumbler available all have different capacities and running times, so it is well worth looking at the specifications for each one to see which best suits your needs.
The author currently has a Berry’s dry media tumbler on test, using crushed walnut shell and their Brass Bright polish and the results are great (watch this space for a full review). This combination gives a great clean and polish in about ninety minutes. Cleaning times will depend on the machine used, the type of media and how dirty the cases are. Experience has shown that a regular clean, after two or three uses, is the most effective and efficient way to keep cases clean. Once cases have become extremely dirty the cleaning machines seem to struggle to give good results. Keeping your cases clean will make reloading easier and ensure your ammo functions in your chosen firearm, so time spent on this task is time well spent. Clean cases are also much easier to inspect for safety issues like cracks and bulges, ensuring none of these sneak through the reloading process.
Berry’s case cleaning products: Henry Krank & Co. Ltd henrykrank.com
Frankford Arsenal Case cleaning products: Sportsman Gun Centre sportsmanguncentre.co.uk
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