A very common question I get when it comes to reloading is one of preparing previously fired brass for use in the reloading process. There seems to be controversy in how and when to clean brass and what is sufficient enough to get good results. Keep one thing in mind; brass used for reloading can never be too clean. But at the same time you don’t want to go crazy trying to clean them.
All used brass requires a “pick through” for dirt, twigs, leaves and other foreign matter that could have accumulated in, on or around the brass while sitting on the ground. This goes for brass picked off the floor of indoor ranges as well. I cannot tell you how many times I have pulled out .22 brass from larger caliber brass casings. These casings roll around on the ground together and find its way inside the other.
Sort the brass by caliber. Trust me, it will save the headaches later. Keeping all your brass pre-sorted not only saves you the trouble of doing it later, but also from finding smaller brass wedged into larger brass during the cleaning process. This usually results in both pieces having to be re-cleaned.
First Clean – Hot Wash
The hot wash is essentially a thorough rinse in hot water. Do not use boiling, or scalding hot water. Just use just hot tap water. Add water and brass to a bucket and a give it a good shaking. Shake so that all the brass is agitated in the hot water. This will loosen any further dirt or other matter that might be lodged inside the brass that you are unable to see or reach. This is especially true for rifle ammo. Once agitated for a minute or two, drain the water. Do not leave your brass sitting in hot water. It will discolor the brass.
Second Clean – Sonic Tank
Now it’s clear and understood that not everyone has a sonic tank and many people would just throw the brass directly into a tumbler. Lots of time this works, but if you really want that extra level of reliability then get yourself a little sonic tank. It pays for itself in reliability over and over again.
To clean the brass using a sonic tank, simply add the brass to the tank. Then add enough water to cover the brass along with a little brass cleaner and start the machine. The tank does the rest. It loosens and carries away lots of little particle of fouling and unburnt powder, dirt, oils, dust and whatever else might be building up on the outside of the casings. It will also clean the inside of the brass. The most important part of the inside of the casing is the little flash hole that connects the primer pocket to the inside of the brass chamber. This is where all the magic happens.
Is this starting to make sense now? How many uses will you get out of brass with a clogged flash hole? Uh huh.
Let the machine run through a few cycles (see below for specific info). Then remove the brass, usually with an included basket, and give a thorough rinse in cold, distilled or tap water. I always use tap water and have never had a problem. Now, spread the clean brass out on a towel to dry.
Third Clean – Tumbler
Now the tumbler comes into play. Think of the sonic tank as your cleaner and your tumbler as the polisher. While the tumble media does do a little cleaning inside by carrying away particles that attach to the little pieces of media, the main job of the tumbler is to put that nice shiny, smooth finish on the brass. This will aid in loading the bullets into the brass and ultimately the smooth chambering of each round when the gun cycles the ammo.
There are a few choices when it comes to the cleaning media you select. The most common is ground corn cobs, but I prefer the finely ground walnut shells instead. They seem to do a better job at polishing, especially when the brass is collected from the outside where they get a little more abuse due to weather factors.
A little tumble polish cream added to the media will also help the end result. Adding a 3×3 inch square of static dusting cloth to the mix with every addition of new brass (throw the old ones out) will help keep the dust to a minimum when separating the brass from the media.
In addition to all the general advice on cleaning your brass above, there are some specifics I should cover. With regard to pistol brass, a 1-2 hour “run” in the sonic tank is more than enough to get mist of the dirt away from the metal. There is generally no need to first punch out the old primers and clean out the primer pocket, as the sonic tank will clear out the flash hole. Once out of the tank, rinse and then allow drying on an absorbent towel for about 24 hours. This will get your brass dry enough for the tumbler. Now 2-3 hours in the tumbler should be fine to have them ready for the reloading process.
An important point to note, with regard to your reloading process with your newly cleaned brass is that if your reloading press is using regular steel dies, then you should always use a lubricant on your brass before reloading them. Hornady One-Shot is specifically designed for this and does a good job. If your press is using carbide steel dies, then you do not have to worry about using a lubricant on pistol caliber ammo.
Now as far as rifle brass is considered, you’re going to want to give them a little more time in both the sonic tank and the tumbler. The reason for this is the much longer powder chamber that needs to be cleaned.
First be sure to punch out the old primer before cleaning, this will give you a clean pocket and flash hole. An extra hour in the sonic tank, a longer drying time before going into the tumbler and then an extra hour in the tumbler will take care of things nicely. Also keep in mind that rifle brass will always need some case lube even if using carbide dies.
Now, to answer some of your questions: Do you need to have a sonic tank? No, but it really helps to have one. Do you need to have a tumbler with specialized cleaning media? No, but it really helps to have them. It can mean the difference between easy or difficult reloading, reliability of your completed reloaded ammo and overall lifespan of the brass itself.
It is a process to get your brass clean for reloading. There is also a little bit of an investment to get started. However, it is also rewarding. My opinion: reloading your own ammo = good.