As I mentioned in a previous entry, I like going to the shooting range whenever I have the time. Unfortunately, two of my favorite guns—a .custom 358 Win. rifle and a .327 Ruger single-action revolver—use hard-to-find ammo, and I spend hours online looking for new sources when the others dry up. This usually results in a lot of special ordering, backordering and premium prices. So I’ve recently decided to take up another hobby-- reloading.
I knew I’d be going this direction for some time, and have been saving all my spent brass. Now, as I go about assembling my little ammo-making factory, I have to decide how I want to clean it. After initially looking around, I soon realized there are 1,005 different mickey-mouse ways people clean their brass, all of them involving washing and drying (warning: don't dry your brass in the oven), nasty chemicals, labor-intensive manual putzing, or a combination of these. One approach I found interesting was putting bullet casings in old socks and tossing them in the washer with a little soap. If you and your wife aren’t concerned about getting toxic primer residue in your underwear, then have at it. Also, the idea of feeling “accomplished” by hand-cleaning your own brass gets old real fast. The time, vapors, cleaning up after the chemicals… forget it.
In the end, I narrowed my options down to three of the more endorsed methods: tumbler, ultrasonic washer and cement mixer.
The tumbler actually falls into two categories: rotary & vibrating. Both work well and have strong followings, although there are distinct differences. The rotary tumbler, originally created for polishing rocks, turns a barrel in which the cleaning media (such as walnut shell or corn cob) clean and polish the brass as they tumble together. Because the drum is water-tight, a cleaning solution or polish can also be added. A favorite method of cleaning in a rotary tumbler is throwing the brass in a tumbler with stainless steel media and some dish soap, liquid detergent or a specially-made cleaner. More so than some other methods, with stainless steel the cartridges turn “like-new” bright & shiny, inside and out. Reloaders who have tried this method claim that they’ll never go back to walnut or corn cob media again. The downside is that stainless steel is a lot more expensive, about $50 for 5 lbs. compared to $23 for 25 lbs. It should be noted, though. the stainless steel does last longer, too.
Two examples of rotary tumblers are:
...and the Chicago Electric Dual Drum Rotary Rock Tumbler.
Rotary tumblers are generally less expensive and run quieter than the vibrating models. Also, FWIW, they create less dust than the vibrating models. However, they're vastly slower and there’s also extra time invested in separating the brass from the media.
The vibrating tumbler, as was already mentioned, is a lot faster—even by several hours—so you can get through a lot more brass in the same amount of time Also, it’s a dry-cleaning process, so you don’t have to worry that the brass is thoroughly dry. A downside to consider, though, is the vibratory tumbler doesn't get the inside of the casings as clean as the rotary. This isn't really considered a problem; it doesn't affect the performance of the ammo, or have any adverse affect on the gun, if the inside of the shell isn't as clean and bright as the outside. Just be aware, that will be the result. Two tumblers you can find at great prices are:
the 5 lb. Metal Vibrator/Tumbler and...
The foremost praise given to the ultrasonic cleaner is how fast it works. Plus, it will clean the entire case, inside and out, including the primer pocket, without getting media stuck in the flash holes (as with other methods, when they need to be picked out). You also don't get the dust all over the casings like with the other methods, and you're spared having to breathe the lead dust when separating the brass from the cob or walnut media. The downsides are, it cleans but doesn't polish the brass, you have to dry the cases after you clean them, and the hardware is slightly more expensive. That being said, Harbor Freight has one at a great price.
Which leads me to most out-there, but surprisingly popular method of cleaning brass: the cement mixer. This is the go-to device when you've got a lot of brass to clean-- like thousands of casings. Indeed, a number of reloaders point to Harbor Freight's cement mixers as the "ultimate wet or dry tumblers," not only for their effectiveness, but also their cheap prices and reliability. In order to make their cement mixer work as a "tumbler," they leave out the paddles when assembling it, leaving the round tub empty. To keep the brass from banging against the steel tub, some spray the interior with a rubber coating, but that's more for the noise than any concern for the brass getting dinged. All sorts of media can be used in them, but crushed walnut seems to be a favorite, with possibly a brass polish additive. Harbor Freight carries two models made by Central Machinery, both of them used by reloaders:
By sharing all these methods, it's not my intent to try to sway you in any direction. Everyone's needs and preferences are different. Before you do make a decision, though, google terms like "tumbler vs. ultrasonic cleaner" and "cleaning brass cement mixer," and see what they're saying in the blogs and forums-- and ask questions! I think you'll find the methods I've listed here are the best.
See you at the range!