Inexpensive Brass Case Cleaning

Today I want to share how I clean my brass cartridge cases, inexpensively and thoroughly, without the use of mechanical devices or expensive equipment. I want to say up front, I see the benefit of ultrasonic cleaners and brass tumblers that have special solutions or stainless steel pin tumbling media. I am not trying to claim that my method cleans or polishes brass as well as any of the other more expensive, more complex methods. I am claiming it does an adequate job for very little investment. I cannot afford an expensive machine for cleaning brass, but my brass is always clean.

You will need four things to clean your used (dirty) cartridge cases. Hot water, a container, dish soap and lemon juice. I usually de-prime (de-cap) my brass cases prior to cleaning and before resizing and reloading. I use a plastic container that is meant to be a shoe storage box. Any container that can hold the amount of cases you are cleaning will work. I tried several different tubs and containers for cleaning brass and settled on the shoe storage box because the size and shape were perfect to me. I wear nitrile gloves or latex gloves for getting in the dirty water to agitate the cases. I usually use Dawn Ultra soap and have found it seems to do the best job and leave little to no soapy film. Any dish soap will work but they all need to be rinsed thoroughly after cleaning and prior to drying the cases.

I sort my cases by caliber so they get cleaned together in a batch and avoid different size cases getting stuck together. I put them in the container and rinse them in hot water to get any dirt or loose grime off first. I swirl them around and drain off the water. Then I refill with hot water while adding two caps full of lemon juice to the water and add 10 – 15 drops of soap (estimated). You don’t want too much soap because it can make the brass grey and sticky from soap residue. I swirl it all together. Depending on your container, the amount of cases and how filthy your brass is, your process (amount of water, soap etc., and amount of time) will change sometimes and may not be the same as mine. Sometimes I have two or three different tubs of brass being cleaned at the same time, it is easy and convenient. Cleaning brass this way does work and works well, you just may need to experiment a bit. You will need to agitate (hand tumble) the cases in the mixture and then let them sit. For a “normal sized batch” I fill my container a little past half way with hot water and have 40 – 80 pistol cases. I let them sit in the mixture for 40 minutes to an hour total time, usually. I tumble to start and then re-tumble by hand every 10 – 15 minutes. You will notice them getting cleaner after 10 minutes. I have left them in longer than an hour but it does not make a marked difference in how clean they get in a normal batch. I like to err on the side of caution. So I hand tumble, let them sit 10 – 15 minutes, then hand tumble again for up to an hour. Large batches or extra grimy cases can stay in cleaning solution longer, even up to two hours. You will see them getting clean and shiny and will see the water getting dirty.

After the cases have been hand tumbled several times, I check to make sure they look clean and then drain off the dirty water. I then rinse them off with hot water really well, paying particular attention to getting rid of soap residue and rinsing them clean. I usually let them sit in the clean hot water for a few minutes prior to draining them and then putting them in a big towel. I shake them around in the towel and roll the cases around to try to get out most of the water. The towel helps a lot to keep water spots from forming on the brass. Once I think they are relatively dry I put them in a pan or tray that will go in the oven to be dried for an hour. You can dry brass in the sun outside, you can use a food dehydrator, an oven on low temperature (150 F – 160 F) or just let them air dry. I like using the oven at 160 F. Many times if the batches are small, I use the same oven I use for powder coating.

After the cases are dry they are ready to be put back into use. I check and inspect my shiny clean brass for wear, cracks and stretching. I clean the primer pockets by hand if they need it. Usually a quick scrape inside the primer pocket with a small screwdriver or cleaning tool gets rid of any carbon in there. That is really all there is to it. I tried a few different recipes for cleaners and different times of letting them sit in solution and this is my basic method now. I consistently get good results and my brass is not sticky or dirty. If you don’t have a tumbler or don’t want to spend a lot of money to clean your brass, you don’t have to. You can wet clean it by hand and it will come out really well. Give it a try I think you will like it.

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Lever Action Gypsy
Lever Action Gypsy

Great article John, a lot of people dont realize you dont need much to get nice serviceable brass. As you pointed out, you do need to experiment a bit depending on your container sizes an how much brass and how dirty it is. For my first couple years of reloading I didnt even bother cleaning the brass. Then I realized cleaner brass makes ‘policing’ the brass when shooting outdoors all the easier. I did my brass in a similar manner as you for years, I use a Harbor Freight rock tumbler now, which just makes it a little cleaner and… Read more »

cup4joe
cup4joe

I have to be honest, I never clean my .357/38 Special brass. it goes from my gun, to my range bag, to my press and back to my gun, over and over and over again (I do scrape my primer pockets) I did once clean my 300 Blackout Brass before I sold that upper, I used a vinegar soap mixture that worked really well really quickly, but was told that soaking too long can really take some important elements out of your brass so it’s use should be limited. I’m glad to see other options that aren’t a heavy time… Read more »

kaisermike
kaisermike

Sounds like a great idea. Faster than a tumbler and the wife will be glad the noise is gone lol!

Jerry 1911
Jerry 1911

I used to throw all of my pistol brass in a 2 gallon container and let it soak for a day, using a similar solution. Probably had 10+ firings on the brass, and it always functioned in my semiautomatic pistols.

Loads of Bacon
Loads of Bacon

Great info John! I have heard some of the most outrageous things about brass tumbling requirements, but it doesn’t need to be complicated at all, or expensive. Good stuff!