One of the big reason to get into reloading is to save money. (Or to be able to use casings you scrounge out of the ruins of civilization after the apocalypse, but I digress) Brass is the most expensive cartridge component and it can be reused many times. This can translate into either a big savings or the ability to shoot a lot more if you continue to spend the same amount of money. I did the math in my post about Almost Reloading about a year ago. After the first use of the brass, subsequent reloads would cost about $1.90 per 50 rounds for 9mm Makarov. Compare that to the best prices you can find in stores or online. The savings will be comparable for other calibers, but the specific prices will vary. Larger calibers use more powder, though almost all common handgun calibers use the same primers.
Of course you can buy new brass from any number of sources. Cabelas, Gander Mountain, and Bass Pro Shops all sell brass. Many local gun shops such as Shyda’s Gun Shop here in Lebanon also carry brass and other reloading components. You can also order fired brass from a number of places online many of which I have listed on my Reloading Suppliers Page, among the links up at the very top of this blog.
But if you really want to save some money, or maybe just cannot afford to buy brass, then range brass will be your salvation. Range brass is brass that you pick up off the ground at the range. A lot of shooters don’t reload and many don’t bother to pick up their brass. So when you go the range pick up any and all brass you find. If you find brass in a caliber that you don’t reload pick it up anyway. You might reload for it one day, or might have a friend or family member who shoots it. If not then you can always wait until you accumulate a bucket of brass that you don’t need and recylcle it for some quick cash. The same goes for non reloadable Berdan primed brass, and for steel casings. The recyclers are paying pretty good for metals these days.
Either way range brass and fired brass that you purchase will both need to be cleaned before reloading. Cleaning the brass will prevent dirt and crud from getting into your dies, and prevent anything harder than your dies that might be on the brass from galling the dies. Range brass gets notoriously dirty, especially if it is an outdoor range and if there has been any rain since it was left.
Most experienced reloaders end up getting a tumbler to clean their brass. However those on a tight budget and those new to reloading may not have a tumbler, or may not be able to get one for quite a while. Never fear, early reloaders got by for decades before the first commercial tumblers came on the market. How did they do it? By washing their brass.
WHETHER YOU TUMBLE OR WASH YOUR BRASS IT NEEDS TO BE DECAPPED (DEPRIMED) BEFORE YOU CLEAN IT
Things you will need to wash your brass:
- A bucket or similar container. Popular containers include buckets, plastic bins, and coffee cans.
- Hot water. You do have hot and cold running water, right?
- Dish soap. Ordinary liquid dish soap like Dawn, or any of the other brands.
Additional things you might want include vinegar, laundry detergent, and salt. There are a number of recipes for the cleaning solution and a number of methods of washing. Here are a couple of popular recipes I pulled off the web:
- 1 QT hot water
- 1 Cup Venegar
- 1 Tablespoon laundry detergent
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 1 Pint hot water
- 1 cup venegar
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon dish detergent
There are many others. There are as many recipes as there are old reloaders who have been doing since before tumblers were invented. I just use hot water, and dish soap. No salt, no vinegar, no laundry detergent though I guess it would work as well as dish soap.
WHETHER YOU TUMBLE OR WASH YOUR BRASS IT NEEDS TO BE DECAPPED (DEPRIMED) BEFORE YOU CLEAN IT
Once you have your dirty brass casings place them in a bucket or other similar container. The picture is one of my buckets with about 548 brass casings in .38 special. If you don’t have a container or bucket they can be acquired for free. Get down to your local grocery store or supermarket. Go to the bakery section. Ask them if they have any leftover buckets. They will give you them for free or tell you what time of the day to come back to get them for free. All of their stuff arrives in buckets and they throw them away when empty. Independent bakeries, chinese food places, pizza shops, and similar places are also good for free buckets. The buckets are typically 1.5, 2, or 3 gallons. If you want 5 gallons you will probably have to buy it. You will have to wash the buckets. They will have residue of batter, dough, and frosting that will need to be cleaned out before using them.
Next get your solution or dish soap. I just use regular good old fashioned Dawn. We have it around because we use it for dishes (oddly enough), and it also is the best and safest flea bath for cats. Take the bucket and dish soap (or solution) to your bath tub (or kitchen sink). I like ot work in the bath tub. It gives me more room to work, a larger area to make a mess in while keeping it contained, and a bigger faucet that puts out a larger volume of water. It’s also less likely to be full of dishes when I need it.
Start the water (or add the solution if you pre mixed one). Get the water as hot as it will get from the tap. Steaming is good. Squirt some Dawn into the bucket full of brass and shove the bucket under the tap. Let it fill until the water (not just the suds) are an inch or two above the brass casings, then pull it back. Whether or not you continue to let water run into the tub is up to you. Now comes the hard part.
You have to agitate the mixture. There are several ways to do this. You can place a stick, pole, old spatula, etc into the bucket and stir the brass around. You can reach in and do it by hand, though if you pick this method wear some of those big heavy household cleaning gloves. Primers contain lead and other nasty chemicals. Bullets also contain lead. Some residue gets left in the primer pockets and and the mouth of the casing. It then gets washed out by the hot water/soap mixture. This can leach into unprotected hands and may cause problems. Especially if you do this for decades. You can also just pick up the bucket and swish it around vigorously. That’s actually kind of fun.
Whatever method you choose, give the brass a good agitation for a few minutes and then put it down and go do something else. Watch TV, go for a smoke, whatever. Come back in 10 minutes. Don’t wait longer than 20 minutes as lead residue suspended in water can electroplate onto the brass. Yes electroplating can be that simple. So make sure you are back in 10-15 minutes.
Drain out the soapy water. Turn the tap back on, hot or cold is your choice, and rinse the brass thoroughly. You can agitate the brass during rinsing to both increase cleanliness and speed rinsing. Keep rinsing until all of the soap is gone and then drain as much water out as possible. Voila, there you go. A whole buch of clean but wet fired brass. Almost ready for reloading. On to the next step, drying. Well, not yet.
Our purpose here is to clean your cases. We don’t want dirt, mud, crud, lead, nasty chemicals, or other debris on the brass. We don’t want to gum up or damage our dies. Dies are way more expensive than casings and if cared for properly will last a lot longer than we will. However we are not trying to make them bright and shiny like new again. Brass will tarnish, it will discolor, it will stain. If you want shiny bling then go drop the money on a tumbler. Or sit there with stea wool and brass polish hand polishing each casing. I want brass that will work. I don’t care if it is dull or even has turned green. Damaged brass should be tossed in your recycle bucket. Undamaged but not pretty brass should be kept and reloaded.
Before your begin reloading your brass it must be completely dry. There are several methods for drying brass. One common method is to spread it out on old newspaper for 1-3 days. Placing it in the sun may speed this process. In a hot arid climate it may dry in hours by this method. In damp or cold climates it may take a few days.
Another popular method is to dry it in the oven. If you choose this method make sure the brass is completely cool before you begin reloading it. I use this method. Old cookie sheets that your wife no longer uses are perfect for this. You definately don’t want to use a cookie sheet that might get used for food. You could potentially contmainate something and you will definately piss off your wife. You could buy new cookie sheets just for this purpose, but if you want to spend money just go buy a tumbler. I have a bunch of old cookie sheets and baking pans that I use for all sorts of stuff, like trays for holding sprouts and seedlings when gardening. In fact I save every pan or cookie sheet the wife is going to throw away.
Place the brass on an old cookie sheet. Make sure it is spread out and not piled up. Place the cookie sheet in the oven on the lowest setting. Most ovens have a setting at 200 or 250 degrees F. This is perfect. It takes about 155 degrees F to drive loosely coupled water molecules off a surface. Pre heat the oven for 10 minutes (turn it on while you are taking your break during the washing part). Place the pan of brass in the oven for 10-20 minutes. Then turn the oven off and let it sit in there until it cools down. Voila, clean dry brass ready to be reloaded. Make sure it is completely cool before you reload it.
You will hear a lot of talk about oven drying being dangerous due to annealing the brass. The annealing point for brass starts at 300F-350F (~180C) and it takes at least 12 hours at that temp to start to anneal the brass. 600F takes about an hour or so to anneal brass, 650 takes a few minutes, 850 takes seconds, 900 anneals it pretty quickly. My oven only goes up to 500 degrees F. I only dry brass at 200-250 degrees for 10-20 minutes. It will never get close to annealing under these conditions.
Throughout this process you should be inspecting your casings. Inspect them when you pick them up. Inspect them when you put them in the bucket. Inspect them when you rinse them. Inspect them when you put them on the pan to dry. Inspect them after drying. Any casings that are cracked or split or have other signs of damage should be tossed in your ecycle bucket and not reloaded.
Well, there you go. A cheap, easy, quick method of cleaning those nasty but free casing you picked up at the range.