RELOADERS CORNER: Cartridge Cases, the Outside, Part 2: Case Cleaning

Clean means “not dirty.” More details coming next. READ IT ALL

clean cases

Glen Zediker

Clean brass loads easier, keeps dies cleaner (and may help them last longer), and might even help your barrel last longer. Brass collected up off the ground almost always has some manner of grit clinging to it and, depending on range locale, that will cause more or less concern. If it’s sand, for instance, this debris can do serious damage to a die (and barrel). Plus, I’ve never had a semi-automatic that didn’t soot up the case neck and shoulder. And, since we’re needing to lubricate the whole case prior to sizing, there’s no place for gunk. As said last time, case lube should not be a case cleaner!

There is also always going to be firing residue, if not on the case, it will be inside the case, and in there will also be primer residue, which is very abrasive.

Brass doesn’t have to be polished to be cleaned, which is to say that it doesn’t have to be shiny to be clean. Get down to the bare metal and that’s “clean.”

The question is How?

Not counting all the methods and means I’ve heard tell of, which number well over a dozen, the two common are either dry media or liquid media. Dry media is most commonly corncob or walnut, and run through a rotary- or (more popularly) vibratory-style appliance. There’s another I’ve been impressed with and that is the use of steel media, and more in a bit.

corncob media
Good old corn cob works just fine, but make sure you get all the residues off the cases.

Liquid means can revolve around detergent-type solutions and agitation, or the “sonic” cleaners.

General: Advantages to dry media are, well, that it’s dry! Not (as) much mess. Disadvantages exist, however. The main one is getting all the residual dust and particulate out of the cases. I caution against using any additional abrasive additives to the dry media because what doesn’t get cleaned away will, not can, accompany a bullet down a barrel. Advantages to wet media are that it can do a thorough job of cleaning, no doubt. It also doesn’t leave any residue. But! It’s wet! And that means the cases need dried thoroughly prior to reuse. There are specialty appliances that can do it, but a cookie sheet in an oven set on “low” does the trick too.

hornady case cleaner
Hornady Sonic Case Cleaner

Back to the steel: That’s why I like this method. Dry, no residue. It in no way hurts the cases, and works pretty quickly.

steel case cleaner
A newer dry media is steel. It works well and leaves nothing behind. This magnet is how you separate media from cases. This one is from Frankford Arsenal

No media lasts forever. Corncob, especially, should be routinely discarded and the appliance cleaned out to avoid any resident grit mingling with the media particles. Much as in the same way gold panning works, heavier junk can settle to the bottom of the bowl. Tumbling media, by the way, doesn’t really wear out: it just gets crudded up.

Take steps post-cleaning to ensure that residues are gone, and also that primer pockets are free of particles. Some use compressed air to blow out the case inside, and others go as far as to rinse and dry.

Speaking of primer pockets! I very strongly suggest decapping prior to cleaning. That way the pocket will, indeed, be cleaned. This doesn’t take much time and requires only an inexpensive station as shown nearby.

decaping die
I strongly recommend decapping primers prior to cleaning. A setup like this doesn’t cost much, and the operation is pretty painless.

Additional steps? There are some long-used steps taken especially by precision shooters, such as brushing the inside of case necks, and also using a polishing cloth to thoroughly clean the case neck, case shoulder area, and separate attention paid to the pimer pocket. But. These steps originated with Benchrest competitors and the reason is because I never met one yet who uses the short of cleaning apparatus “we” use. Never a tumbler! Their cases never hit the ground either. Nothing more than a thorough run through the volume-cleaning media of your choice should be needed, and the primer pocket cleaner should likewise be unnecessary if you take the advice of cleaning deprimed cases.

Honestly, it’s better, and I say best, if the case cleaning media leaves no residues. That’s where dry steel media and the liquid cleaners come in.

Back to the basics: Clean is clean. “Nothing but brass” is “clean.” Polished and gleaming cases are not necessarily better, and matter not a whit to performance.

One last: my favorite case cleaning “story” ever. Middleton Tompkins, many-time Highpower Rifle national champion, showed me his case cleaning method on a visit. Mid (and his wife, dominant Long Range Rifle winner, Nancy) go well beyond “high volume” in their needs for clean cases. To that end, Mid purchased a small commercial cement mixer into which he dumped pounds of BBs and a solution of Joy dishwashing soap and water (later rinsed and drained and dried). Now, that’s a high-volume case cleaner!

Check out Midsouth products HERE

And decapping DIES!

This article is adapted from Glen’s books, Handloading For Competition and Top-Grade Ammo, available at Midsouth HERE. For more information about other books by Glen, visit


17 thoughts on “RELOADERS CORNER: Cartridge Cases, the Outside, Part 2: Case Cleaning”

  1. Have wet tumbled for years with SS pins; no muss, no fuss, no walnut dust to replace. Run pins alone once in awhile to clean crud off of them as they do get dirty. When your brass looks bronzey in color, time to clean the pins. Brass will still shoot when made into a complete round but it gives you an idea as to when the pins need cleaning. Everyone’s mileage will vary but larger cases will crud up the pins faster just due to the large inner and outer surface area.
    My 2½¢

  2. Since my 22-250 brass never touches the ground, the outside of the neck, which has either carbon or something that looks like it that won’t come off by tumbling. So before tumbling I use a small piece of NEVR-DULL wadding polish which removes it within 10-15 seconds per case. Any small amount of NEVR_DULL left I don’t worry about. I toss these cases in my 40 year old THUMLER’S TUMBLER with corn cob media from Frankfort Arsenal, which seems to never wear out. I always remove the primer after tumbling for 3-5 hours. I do this only because if I don’t leave the primer in, the flash holes always seem to get plugged with tumbling media & I have to take a special step to insure the flash hole is cleared of media. I then decap the case of its spent primer. I then us a bump-neck bushing die to neck size only. I like .002″- .003″ interference on the bullet. I use Imperial’s powdered graphite only on the inside of the neck.
    Before I started lubing the inside of the neck I noticed that the resistance to bullet seating wasn’t consistent.
    I have no proof that this increases accuracy or gives me a more consistent velocity or not, but I’m certain it doesn’t hurt anything. What I do know is….. when I measure from the ogive of the bullet to the cartridge base, it’s always within .001″ of being the same.
    Bottom line….. if my groups ain’t good, I have no one to blame but myself. With my 77 year old eyes I figure I’m doing as well as I can now. Maybe when I get my cataracts removed I’ll do better. 🙂 God, I hope so!
    Are there any of you out there who’ve noticed a difference in their group sizes after having cataracts removed??

    1. I just had my right eye cataract removed and it is less of a chore then having one’s teeth cleaned ! No pain no discomfort and it is quick about 10 to 15 minuets for the actual operation . The next day I could read without classes! In a month I was out shooting with groups as tight as 1/2 inch at 200 yards! Using one of my Remington 700s in 6.5 Creedmoor. Oh did I mention I will be 73 in March? In February am getting my left eye done. So my friend get it done you will be amazed by the difference!

    2. Yes! And lots of improvement in other areas as well. Do not worry about negatives. They’ll replace the lens in the worst eye first, then a week or two later they’ll do the other eye.
      Be sure to research all the options and features available in lenses. There are more variations than I could list here. I think they all come with UV blocking. Mine are yellow tinted, like yellow shooting glasses. Now any clear safety glasses work. Be sure to discuss your shooting hobby with the MD. Mine was an avid quail hunter, which is also one of my favorites. Find some new, comfortable, positive adjectives to use in describing your new lenses. You will use them over and over and over.

  3. Steel shot will harden brass, I tumble silver and copper jewelry and it does harden those. I have know way of testing brass cases but it should do the same to them. My opinion!

  4. First he tells us that precision rifle shooters never ever tumble there brass, then he tells us about two rifle champions that use the biggest tumbler ever. Makes it hard to change anything I’m already doing based on his advice.

  5. I shoot mostly range pickups, so sand, pebbles, bugs, etc. are present. I vibratory clean in Lyman treated walnut shell, this is my ‘dirty’ clean that cuts tarnish well. From there they go to wet steel pin tumbling and drying before case prep. After case prep they will go through corn cob to remove case lube and any brass trimmings I missed, then on to reloading.
    Completed rounds destined for storage take a tumble in treated corn cob to make them pretty before boxing up.
    To quote Trevor Furlotte, “Brass prep sucks.”

    1. Tumbling loaded rounds is tumbling the powder inside the case which breaks the powder down so it is smaller grains and dust which can create different burning characteristics leading to higher pressure. Compressed powder should be little affected or unaffected.
      Without tumbling what’s the best way to remove case lube after loading?

    2. you actually tumble loaded rounds? have been told that is a no-no. spend lots of time to be sure brass is clean but at times boxed product does not show this. interesting

  6. This article leaves out the old fashioned, non-tumbling, no expensive gear method: 1 part vinegar to 4 parts of water, add a pinch of salt and a bit of dishwashing detergent; soak the brass for an hour or more with intermittent hand agitation; rinse thoroughly using a spray head. Drain completely using an old collander. I then spread it out under a fan and it’s dry within an hour (much less than that actually – this is Arizona). And, yes, decap the primers first.

  7. I have pretty good luck with SS media in a tumbler. Citric acid, salt, detergent – not too much. Brass usually looks new, but will patina in a week or two.

    For drying wet brass, just pick up one of those $30 fruit dryers from WallyWorld or the Borg (Amazon) – no need to buy some special kind of “brass dryer”. Add $5 to that $30 if you want a timer – but they dry brass extremely well – and quickly.

    1. I use LemiShine and Dawn, Gain didn’t work well for some reason, I’ve not heard of using salt; I’ll have to try that in a batch.
      I’ve found too much LemiShine turns the brass pinkish. I’ve read that it is chemically leaching the copper out of the brass.

    2. I dry my cases with a good hair dryer that works well for this part of the case cleaning operation. Best to have them deprimed first.


  8. I use 0000 steel wool on outside neck. RCBS Case Prep Center with appropriate size poly or bronze brush for inside neck. Primer pocket brushes on case prep cntr as well. All this works for me. A benchrest shooter that I shoot with about once a month does not even clean his brass. Bushing neck size only, prime , charge, seat and fire.

  9. Heard a good idea recently…haven’t tried it yet. For the wet tumbling with stainless method, use some of that car wash n wax, leaves a bit of wax on there and prevents tarnish.

  10. I spray some 409 cleaner on a rag and spin range brass to clean any grit. Some of the soot on the necks comes off too. I lube , resize and deprime then run them through the sonic cleaner. After rinsing them off. I wipe the outside dry and stack them upside down overnight in a reloading tray. The next day they are dry. If I want then shiney I’ll vibrate them an hour in walnut shells.

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