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Cleaning Brass Cartridge Casings

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I handload my own ammunition and I frequently get asked how I get my fired brass so clean.

My brass cleaning process is very simple, but with extra steps compared to most people.

Before I start, here’s a list of items I use for brass case cleaning:

  1. Two (2) vibratory cleaners. There are plenty of different manufacturers out there and they’re all pretty much the same, short of a few varying features (e.g. capacity). I currently have a Lyman and an RCBS.
  2. Rotary Case/Media separator. There are plenty of manufacturers out their for these. I use a generic one from Cabelas, although RCBS makes one that is readily available.
  3. Crushed walnut shell media. You often find this stuff sold at reloading supply vendor stores/sites as case cleaning media. Do not buy those products. Why? They are too expensive and they typically contain additives that create excessive dust. Go find a bird supply store. They will have crushed walnut shell media in large quantities for significantly less. For example, Lyman sells case cleaning media under their ‘Tufnut‘ product line and is often sold for around $15 for 3 lbs. Around five years ago, I went to a local bird supply store and bought 20 lbs of crushed walnut shell for $8. $15 for 3 lbs at $5 per lb or $8 for 20 lbs at 40 cents per lb? Easy decision. Note: I still have about a quarter of that 20 lb bag still unused today.
  4. Nu-Finish Liquid Car Polish. This is the same stuff you find at any auto parts store. Yes, this stuff is horrible for cars (I would never use this on any car; it has abrasives), but it is an amazing additive for untreated crushed walnut shell and is inexpensive.
  5. Mineral spirits. Another additive I use for media.
  6. Bounce Fabric Softener Dryer Sheets. I use one or one-half of a sheet in the vibratory cleaner to keep the dust and static down. Trust me. It works.
  7. Lee Universal Decapping Die. This is just a die that you use in a reloading process that removes the primer from a casing without resizing the brass.

With all that said, the following consists of my steps and procedures for actually brass cleaning that I have been using for the past several years.

  1. When I have a batch of fired brass to process, I will first deprime the brass with the Lee Universal Decapping Die. Yes, before anything else. I do not tumble/clean primed brass. The reason is because the spent primer contains the bulk of any lead particles that will be present on a fired cartridge casing. So why would you want that lead primer in your vibratory cleaner getting mixed with your media (and potentially airborne)?
  2. My Lyman vibratory cleaner will already have crushed walnut shell media in it. I will put about a cap full or two of Nu-Finish and then about 2 to 3 tablespoons of mineral spirits into the tub of media. I will then run the vibratory cleaner *without* any brass for about 15 minutes. This will basically ‘treat’ the crushed walnut shell media with the Nu-Finish and mineral spirits. I like to use mineral spirits more to thin out the Nu-Finish, rather than for any sort of cleaning properties.
  3. After the media has mixed with the Nu-Finish and mineral spirits, I will then add the deprimed brass along with a Bounce dryer sheet. Since the vibratory cleaner tub is plastic, it generates static. The dryer sheet helps to mitigate this. The dryer sheet will also help to collect dust particles. I will run the vibratory cleaner for about 2-3 hours. This is the *first* pass of the brass through a vibratory cleaner.
  4. After 2-3 hours in the vibratory cleaner, I will pour out the contents of the Lyman vibratory cleaner into the case media separator and then separate the brass from the media. I will pour the media back in to the vibratory cleaner. The brass is now clean and deprimed.
  5. Assuming I am processing rifle brass, I will now resize it (full length or neck-only depending on the firearm it’s to be used in). During this process, the rifle brass will get lubricant on it when resizing (I use Imperial Die Wax). If this is pistol brass, I will simply skip the rest of the steps below and go straight to priming the resized brass (since I don’t lube pistol brass when resizing).
  6. Since the brass is ‘dirty’ with die lubricant, I will run the brass through another pass in the vibratory cleaner. I use my second vibratory cleaner, the RCBS, for this because I keep separate crushed walnut shell media in it. Since the media for the first pass gets far dirtier than the media for the second pass, I rotate the media out less frequently in the RCBS cleaner. Before  putting in the resized brass, I will add about one cap full of Nu-Finish and one tablespoon of mineral spirits to the media, and will run the cleaner without brass for 15 minutes, just like in step 2. Note that I use less Nu-Finish and mineral spirits since the brass is already fairly clean and I’m only cleaning to remove lubricant.
  7. After the media in the vibratory cleaner has mixed with the Nu-Finish and mineral spirits, I will add the resized brass and a Bounce dryer sheet, just like in step 3 for about 2 hours. This is the *second* pass the brass has made through a vibratory cleaner.
  8. After a couple hours in the vibratory cleaner, I will pour out the contents of the RCBS vibratory cleaner into the case media separator and then separate the brass from the media. I will pour the media back in to the vibratory cleaner.  The brass is now clean, deprimed, and resized.
  9. The next step is to trim the brass using either my Giraud Tool Company power trimmer or a LE Wilson hand trimmer.
  10. After trimming, I will insert the brass neck down into an ammo tray and quickly poke a pick into each and every casing flash hole just to make sure it is clear or any walnut shell media. The brass is now clean, deprimed, resized, trimmed, and ready to prime.

That’s pretty much it. The depriming before cleaning and the second pass through the vibratory cleaner does add some extra steps to the traditional brass preparation process. But I’m fairly meticulous with my brass preparation and this works for me.

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2 Responses

  1. Roy Hinman II

    Straightforward description and is clear and consise. Thank you for sharing your expertise with a new guy just starting.

  2. Sam

    Thanks, that’s a good and clear description of your process and I can see the benefits of your system.

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