Brass Tumblers And Other Case Cleaners

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Cleaning cases and reloading tools is less fun than cleaning guns, but it must be done. Brass tumblers, ultrasounds and other tools make it much quicker and easier.

Spoiler alert: I’m not the neatest guy in the world. While not technically a slob, most of my guns could use a thorough cleaning, and so could my reloading gear. I find cleaning rifles a necessary but mundane chore. Sometimes we need to turn an eye to our reloading tools themselves and give them some attention to keep things running smoothly and delivering consistent results.

Polished Brass
Regarding the cleaning of cases, there are several methods you can choose, depending on your personal preference. Some reloaders like to clean all of their cases before they even see a resizing die, leaving the spent primer in the case during the cleaning process, and letting the resizing die push that old primer out. Others want to get rid of that primer so the cleaning/tumbling process will clean the empty primer pockets, not being concerned about any residue, dirt or grime in their resizing dies.

The large-capacity Lyman 2500 Pro Mag tumbler will hold over 1,000 .38 Special cases.
The large-capacity Lyman 2500 Pro Mag brass tumbler will hold over 1,000 .38 Special cases.

The third method—and the one I personally prefer—is to use a Universal Decapping Die to pop the primers out of the cases before they even see the resizing die, clean/tumble the cases and then start resizing them. I find that the extra step does keep a good amount of unwanted debris out of my resizing dies (and extending the time between the need for cleaning my dies).

Your choice of case cleaner or brass tumbler might be dictated by the amount of room you have and the volume of reloading you tackle. At a minimum, a good vibratory cleaner or tumbler using some form of abrasive media—ground corn cob, crushed walnut shells, or even stainless steel pins—is necessary to keep your brass cases clean.

Of the three types of media, I’ve used walnut the most over the years—though I’ve been known to spike the punch bowl with Lyman’s Turbo Brite Brass Polish. A white pasty substance, just a little dollop of Turbo Brite speeds up the polishing process and really makes the brass shine. I use two vibratory cleaners: the RCBS Vibratory Case Tumbler and an older Midway Model 1292; I’ve had them for years and both get the job done well.

The RCBS Ultrasonic Cleaner II will clean not only brass cases, but many reloading tools as well.
The RCBS Ultrasonic Cleaner II will clean not only brass cases, but many reloading tools as well.

If using a vibratory cleaner or tumbler, you’ll want to be absolutely sure that all the media is out of your cases. It’ll have a tendency to stick in the flash hole or clump up in the bottom of the case, eating up precious case room and possibly creating a dangerous situation. I use a Rotary Case/Media Separator (RCBS), a simple little device, containing a plastic basket that rotates inside of a plastic housing; with a few cranks of the handle, the cases spin around in the basket—kind of like the drum of a clothes dryer—and the media will be shaken free of the cases.

An ultrasonic cleaner is another means of cleaning brass; they use high-frequency sound waves to create small bubbles, which agitate the liquid contained in the tub. While I can’t exactly prove it, ultrasonic cleaners are the best choice for match-grade ammunition, as the cleaning process keeps the internal case volume as uniform as possible. They’re also a great tool for cleaning reloading dies, and you may be amazed at what comes out of your dies. Bit of brass from cases, shavings of bullet jackets, and burnt primer residue all mix with case lube to create a greasy, abrasive paste that can harden over time.

A Universal Decapping Die will remove spent primers from your cases before you resize them, allowing the primer pockets to be cleaned, keeping dirt and debris out of your resizing die.
A Universal Decapping Die will remove spent primers from your cases before you resize them, allowing the primer pockets to be cleaned, keeping dirt and debris out of your resizing die.

I’ve come to enjoy the RCBS Ultrasonic Cleaner II, as it’s easy to use and has a six-liter tub, so all sorts of things can be cleaned in that unit—from brass cases, dies, handgun parts and rifle bolts, to the wife’s jewelry. I can fit a full-size 1911 in the tub, and the basket holds a considerable number of brass cases, even the big magnums. It features a timer that can be set from 1 to 30 minutes, and a convenient drain valve is used with the provided drain hose. You can use plain old tap water, distilled water or one of the many solutions designed to work best with brass cases or gun parts. I’ve had excellent results with Lyman’s TurboSonic solutions.

Be Gone with Die Scum
I give my dies a good spray with an aerosol solvent or good old Hoppe’s No. 9 to help remove built-up copper, lead and brass—I then send them to the ultrasonic. Toss your reloading dies in the basket, and in 5 minutes or so, a whole bunch of gunk will be removed. Every so often I clean the dies, shellholders and any other tool that looks like it’s getting a bit funky. Just be sure to use a light coat of oil on steel parts to prevent rust. Some good cotton swabs or lint-free cotton cloths can be used to apply oil to the nooks and crannies, and then to remove any excess.

Many reloaders like to use the ultrasonic for the first stage of cleaning brass cases, and then send them directly to the vibratory tumbler for the second stage. Where the ultrasonic cleaner will do the majority of the cleaning, the abrasive media of the tumbler will act as a polishing stage.

In addition to cleaning the cases and dies, I even clean the presses once in a while: I’ll take an aerosol can of brake cleaner or Hoppe’s Gun Medic and give the press’ threads, ram and joints a good spray, and then brush and wipe away any debris I can get to. A light oiling prevents rust and keeps the parts moving smoothly.

 Ground walnut shells are just one type of abrasive media used to scour and polish brass cases.

Ground walnut shells are just one type of abrasive media used to scour and polish cases in your brass tumbler.

I save the small packets of silica gel wherever I find them and place them in the die boxes to keep any moisture away from my dies. Sweat is corrosive, so I try to keep things oiled. Should I forget to wipe the dies down, however, and they sit in the box for a while, I’ve got a rusty surprise waiting for me when I open that box again.

Your reloading tools, if properly cared for, will give you a lifetime of use. I’ve got a number of buddies who routinely use presses and dies that are over 40 years old. A little bit of love can go a long way.

Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.


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4 COMMENTS

  1. I have used all of the methods written about here, but the only one I will use now is the rotary tumbler with stainless steel pins, hot water, Dawn dishwashing liquid, and a little Lemi Shine. The higher density of the stainless steel pins cleans the interior and, flash hole and primer pocket so much better than walnut shells, corn cob or rice hulls. Yes sometimes the pins get stuck in the flash hole (just like the other media), but that is part of the inspection process. The cases come out so much cleaner (making for a better inspection) and they look so much better.

    I have to agree that decapping before cleaning makes the most sense for protecting the dies and the cases.

  2. Great article. However your Midway model 1292 vibratory tumbler should be retired as it is a fire hazard. Midway recalled all of them. I had one and got lucky, I caught the problem before it melted down. The electric motor inside is made with an aluminum frame holding the bearings, the frame breaks and allows the armature to move out of place, contacting the side of the hole it rides in. The magnetic field then holds it in place and keeps it from rotating. With the cooling fan inoperative the motor overheats and can melt the plastic base, often igniting the plastic.

    https://www.cpsc.gov/Recalls/1998/cpsc-midway-arms-announce-recall-of-tumblers

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