Cleaning brass- stainless steel media, dry media or ultrasonic cleaners?

Loading your own ammunition is an important, if not necessary step in your path to becoming a master shooter.

Like many shooters, I started reloading handgun ammunition before rifle ammo.  I mostly reloaded brass scavenged from the sand at the local range.  I had a lot of time but a little bit of money.  The weathered cases emerged from the loose sand in various states of cleanliness.  As I would sort my newly acquired components, my hands would turn black.  The dirty cases went into my small tumbler with some dry media and a couple of hours later looked good as new.  It wasn’t until I got into rifles that I started changing the way I cleaned brass.

This post will look at some of the different brass cleaning techniques.

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Media tumbling.  Perhaps the most common method for cleaning cases is using dry media in a vibratory tumbler. The media is typically corn cob or walnut shells and may or may not be treated with polish.  When the process is done, the brass and media are typically separated in either a rotary tumbler or screen. Vibratory tumblers are fairly inexpensive and accessible on most budgets.

The first dry media I used was treated corn cob.  The corn cob was coarse and the treatment made it a little sticky.  I had enough of it get stuck inside of cases that I gave up on it pretty quickly and turned to walnut.  The finer walnut media worked better for me.  I would buy it dry and put a tiny bit of polish in it to get some great results.


Dry vibratory tumbling is great for large batches of pistol cases.  The downsides became apparent when I moved into rifles.  The dry media would often get stuck in flash holes if you decapped first and it didn’t really lend itself to small batches of brass you’d commonly encounter when loading for a hunting rifle.   Plus, after I had kids, I didn’t like the idea of the contaminated dust circulating into my house from my basement reloading area.


Stainless steel media wet tumbling.  Wet tumbling with stainless steel media (small pins) has been around a while but really took off a couple of years ago.  Using a rotary wet tumbler, the brass, stainless steel media and water are mixed for a couple of hours for fantastic results.  Some will even add a small amount of Lemishine and/or soap to the mixture.  The results are mind boggling fantastic if you like super clean stuff, painstakingly fold your sock drawer, worked as an engineer for a clock company, and park far away from everyone in a parking lot to avoid scratches on your Volvo station wagon.

The wet mixture is separated after the brass is cleaned.  The best way I’ve found to do this is to simply pick up each piece of brass and dump the media out of it.  Sometimes the pins get stuck in the case mouth (my pins are the absolutely wrong size for 6.5mm or the flash hole.  The brass then needs to dry.    I use a cheap food dehydrator. Some of my friends just place it on a towel in the sun.

Most shooters who use the wet stainless media method to clean brass decap prior to cleaning so their primer pockets look great.  I’ve found this is also essential to allow the inside of the cases to dry in the dehydrator.  Leaving the primer in place seems to give the water a place to hide with poor airflow and requires an inordinate amount of time to dry.  For a video that shows the process, click here.

A wet tumbling set up will set you back a few hundred dollars, but if you like clean brass and a lengthy process, it is all you.

Ultrasonic cleaning.  Ultrasonic cleaners use cavitation bubbles in a liquid induced by high pressure sound waves to clean brass.  Typically ultrasonic cleaners are a little pricey and can pull double duty cleaning firearms.  While the fouling and dirt is removed from a case that has been ultrasonically cleaned, the cases are not polished like the other two methods.  I used to write load data with a black marker on my cases during load development, the ultrasonic process would not clean this off.  I solved the problem by writing with a smaller marker directly on the bullets.   Like the stainless steel wet media method, the cases need to be dried after cleaning.  I use a food dehydrator for this as well.  I think the ultrasonic method may be the best for small batches of brass.  The unit I use has a fairly short cycle time and holds a reasonable number of cases.

Why not skip cleaning brass?  When I started reloading, cleaning brass was a step.  It didn’t seem to be optional.  Years later I’m talking to a bench rest shooter at the range who is loading in between strings and notice he isn’t cleaning his cases. It turns out a lot of bench rest guys don’t clean their cases in between firings.  Well if they are the hot rodders of the sport and can get away with it, why can’t I?  130 TMK test loads 2.850 OAL

For the past few years, if my brass doesn’t end up in the mud or loose sand, I’ll skip the cleaning process.  I’ll just resize, prime, charge and seat the bullet.  Guess what?  Accuracy doesn’t suffer.  If you take a look around the site you’ll notice a lot of the loaded cartridges shown are dirty (above).

What do you recommend?  It really depends on your own individual needs.

A vibratory case tumbler and dry media is the least expensive and most common option and obviously works.  If you don’t mind handling the media and dust, go for it.  I’ve always found it works exceptionally well for pistol brass.

Wet tumbling with stainless steel media provides fantastic results.  The entire process requires more work than a vibratory tumbler or ultrasonic cleaner.  The start up costs are relatively high, but the results are nothing short of astonishing.  If you like shiny brass and spotless primer pockets, this may be for you.

Ultrasonic cleaners are easier to use than wet stainless media; however, you still have to dry the cases (which aren’t as clean).  If I had to pick one, it would be my preferred cleaning method since I don’t like the dust associated with a vibratory tumbler and dislike removing the stainless steel media from the cases.  It is fairly straight forward but you still have to deal with water and drying cases.

Often I’ll forgo the cleaning process entirely and it doesn’t bother me one bit.  For some reloaders this may be heresy, but I have noticed zero effect on precision.  Take a look around the site, I’ve shot some outstanding groups with dirty brass.

Whichever method you choose, as long as it ends up working for you and meeting your needs, it is the right choice.

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