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Reloading your own ammunition is one of the best hobbies that any firearm enthusiast can take up. But it’s often an involved process and many beginners aren’t sure about how best to clean the brass casings no use for their cartridges.
When they look up online guides or get advice from other experts, they often recommend purchasing a pricey tumbler in order to clean vast quantities of brass casings all at the same time. But this advice, while well-intentioned, doesn’t explain the full story. You don’t actually need a tumbler to clean your reloading press brass. In our guide, we’ll show you how to clean your brass without a tumbler and explain why you may want to use this manual method.
What’s a Tumbler?
Whenever you prepare brass casings for the reloading process, part of what you need to do is clean them. Cleaning your brass casings removes any residue that might still be there from being ejected from a rifle the first time and gets rid of any dirt or debris that can eventually wear down the brass material over time.
However, many hobbyist reloaders and professional gunsmiths alike handle so many brass casings that trying to clean them all by hand, one at a time with a cloth isn’t very doable. It would simply take too long. So many reloaders will use a tumbler in order to simplify and speed up the brass cleaning process.
Tumblers are basically miniature machines that help you clean hundreds of casings in a few hours by mixing cleaning media with casings inside a small reservoir like a bowl. Using small vibrations, the reloading tumbler will eventually scrub away any debris or residue on the brass casings and leave you with clean casings over time.
So it’s no surprise that reloading tumblers are the most popular way to clean your brass. But the ubiquity of this brass cleaning method has led many people to believe that it’s the only way to properly clean their casings. This simply isn’t the case.
Why Don’t You Need It?
Ultimately, tumblers do the exact same thing you would do with your hands, just a little faster and without requiring as much physical effort on your part. But the advantage of tumblers is that they allow you to clean a high quantity of brass in a short period of time. This means that if you don’t have a huge ton of brass to clean – like if you only reload occasionally or if you don’t fire many rounds every month – then you don’t really need a tumbler or the asking price that comes with the machine.
Simply put, tumblers are not the key ingredient for cleaning brass. The actual key ingredient is the chemical or soap you use to break down grease and dirt.
Advantages to Cleaning Brass Without a Tumbler
Cleaning your brass yourself is almost always cheaper even if you have to purchase a cleaning solution beforehand. This means you can save a little bit of money to purchase different brass casings or use the funding for any other part of the reloading process.
Additionally, cleaning your brass without a tumbler can be helpful as you’ll be able to inspect every brass casing personally and make sure everything is clean before storing it for future use. When brass casings are cleaned inside a tumbler, they get a one-size-fits-all treatment that may or may not get rid of all the debris or grease on their surfaces. This means that a few brass casings may be cleaned sub-optimally.
Finally, cleaning your brass casings without a tumbler doesn’t create as much noise in your garage or kitchen, wherever you would normally use the tumbler. You can clean your brass casings using common household tools are appliances and can continue working in your garage and peace. Many tumblers create an incessant hum or buzz that lots of hobbyists find annoying. For hand-cleaning, the only sound you’ll hear is the running of your faucet for brief periods or your oven.
How to Clean Brass Without a Tumbler
To clean your brass without a tumbler, you’ll need to prepare some materials beforehand. These materials include:
- paper towels
- a glass or otherwise solid bowl
- a strainer like you would use for spaghetti noodles
- a tin or another container in which to hold your brass casings
- some cleaning solution
- some soap
You’ll also need to use a heating source like your oven in order to finish the casing cleaning process.
Firstly, you need to clean the brass by putting it in the strainer and running hot water over the casings. If you use your sink, make sure that you close the garbage disposal of your sink so you don’t flush a bunch of brass casing shavings or other dirt down your pipes. Run water over the brass casings for a few minutes and use your fingers to clean off the majority of big dirt pieces and other debris. You want the casings to be relatively visibly clean by the end of this process.
Feel free to use your fingers and move them around the brass casings. Don’t worry about cleaning away every little bit of dirt from the casings, particularly grease or oil. This stuff is going to get naturally broken up and wiped away during the cleaning process we are about to describe.
Next, run your tap water for a few seconds to make sure the water is piping hot. You want it to be as hot as you can possibly stand much like you would use if you were shaving. Pour some of your cleaning solution into the water in the glass or solid bowl and allow it to mix effectively over the next few minutes. Make sure that the solution is about a 1:10 ratio of cleaning solution to water, though this does not have to be exact by any means.
Place the Casings in the Solution
Once your solution is ready, place the strainer of clean brass casings next to the glass bowl. Place the casings into the glassful over a few handfuls and make sure that the water totally covers the casings you have dropped inside. Add more water and solution if required, as there needs to be enough volume that the water can freely swish all around and in between the casings contained in the bowl.
You can use gloves for this part if you want to keep the cleaning solution off your hands. Depending on the type of cleaning solution you use, this may or may not be necessary. Harsher cleaning solutions might dry your hands out and be uncomfortable while others don’t have any negative side effects.
Using either your gloved or bare hands, grab the brass casings and agitate them around the water bowl. Switch them around in random patterns and keep the water turning. Larger bowls are usually best for this, as you are less likely to accidentally slop water over the edges during this part of the process. Agitate the brass casings for between one and two minutes before proceeding to the next step.
The next few steps are fairly repetitive and you can perform other tasks or chores while you wait for the brass casings to be cleaned. Let the brass casings you just agitated sit in the cleaner/water bowl for about 20 minutes before agitating them again. Use your fingers and switch everything around for between one or two minutes and then let the brass casings rest for another 20 minutes. All told, the entire process once you start agitating the casings should take about an hour, allowing for three resting periods.
After the brass casings have been agitated three times and have sat in the soapy water for about an hour, you can replace the brass casings in the strainer you used at the beginning of the process. Run cold water over the casings and allow the dirty water to drip from the strainer into your sink. It’s a good idea to move the casings around and try to make sure that the cold clear water hits every part of each casing, including their interiors.
Most brass casings will still have a residue from the cleaning solution you used. This will cause the water to bubble up and froth over time. Continue to rinse the brass casings until the water runs clearly inside the strainer and no more bubbles are visible. This means that all the residue is gone and the casings are ready to be dried.
Cleaning the casings is really important, so it’s not a bad idea to take each casing individually and rinse them underneath the faucet stream.
The cleaning solution in hot water should have had the effect of breaking up any grease or particularly hard dirt on the brass casing surfaces. At this point, you can now take the paper towels and physically wipe down each brass casing if you see any visible dirt or just want to do a particularly good job. This isn’t necessary if the casings weren’t too dirty to start with.
Next, preheat your oven between 170° and 200° depending on your preferences. Let it heat for about 10 minutes before placing the brass casings on a cookie tray or another oven-safe container. Place the brass casings inside the oven, making sure to space all the casings out and preventing them from piling up on top of one another. Place the casings on several cooking surfaces if necessary in order to accomplish this.
The brass casings only need to be in the oven for as long as it takes to drive them completely. This may be anywhere from between one hour to several hours depending on your oven’s effectiveness. You can alternatively place the brass casings in the sun for a day or two if you find a sunny spot that gets lots of rays.
Either way, be sure the brass casings are totally dry when you’re finished, as leaving water on the casings will eventually lead to tarnishing, which you definitely don’t want!
Alternative: Ultrasonic Cleaner
You don’t necessarily need to hand dry your reloading brass; you can instead use an ultrasonic cleaner. While some may consider this a type of tumbler, they’re not really the same type of machine. An ultrasonic cleaner uses a liquid cleaning medium and produces ultrasonic vibrations that affect your reloading brass at the microscopic level. It’s ultimately very different when it comes to cleaning thoroughness compared to traditional tumblers.
You can find many ultrasonic cleaner machines at the same markets and from the same vendors as you would a quality tumbler. They work very similarly, too; throw your brass casings into a reservoir and fill it with cleaner/water and let the machine do the work. Ultrasonic cleaners have an advantage over most tumblers in that they can effectively clean the insides of most brass casings.
The downside is that many ultrasonic cleaners are quite expensive compared to using tumblers or hand-cleaning your brass. So they’re not a very good budget option and are most effective if you need to clean lots of brass to a perfect shine in rapid succession.
All in all, cleaning your reloading press brass without a tumbler takes a little longer than using any other machine and you won’t be able to clean as much brass in a single batch. But it could be worthwhile for your own reloading set up depending on how much space you have for the cleaning process and what your budget looks like. In many cases, cleaning your reloading brass is a better option if you are just starting out with the reloading hobby. Many beginners are really short on cash, too, so having a cost-effective option like this is great.
In the end, however you clean your brass is irrelevant. Just make sure that you actually clean the brass before you try to use it. It’s the best way to make sure your reloaded cartridges divide you with top-tier performance and you don’t have an accident. Good luck!
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