Beginners Guide to Reloading Equipment: Best Brass Cleaners and More

Handloading/reloading ammunition is one of those things that seems like a daunting prospect if you’ve never done it before. If you’re new to reloading or want to get started, we’ve got all the info you need to get up and running successfully and safely.

Reloading ammo isn’t a mystic art, and once you learn the basics you’ll find a whole new part of the firearms world to explore. It’s a fun part of the hobby to be sure, and it has some practical benefits as well.

What are those benefits? How does reloading even work? What do you even need, equipment-wise?

I’m so glad you asked. Let’s talk about it.


Benefits of Reloading

Right out of the gate, I’m going to break your heart and/or piss you off; reloading is a terrible way to spend less money on shooting.

Now hold on, I know that’s not what you wanted to hear, but let me finish before you get out the torches and pitchforks and run me outta town. It might be a terrible way to spend less overall, but it’s a great way to get more out of the same amount of money.

In truth, it’s become increasingly difficult for reloaders to actually produce rounds for the most common calibers at cheaper rates than what can already be had on store shelves and online. For example, 9mm, 5.56/.223, and even .308 are somewhat difficult to make cheaper than what you can get waiting for sales and buying in bulk.

You also have to take into account the fact that you’re going to most likely be buying, on average,  $500+ in equipment. If you only shoot these common calibers, it’s going to be a very, very long time indeed before you make money on your initial investment into the gear.

That’s not to say you won’t get more for your money, however.

First and foremost, brass is expensive, and good brass can be very, very expensive, so reusing that brass will definitely go along way towards helping you recoup your investment, so if you shoot expensive factory ammo that uses say, Lapua brass you might be paying well over $1 a round just in brass, but you can use it many times.

Second, there’s the fact that you’re getting some very, very good ammunition for less than you’d normally pay for similar-quality ammo. I shoot mostly factory ammo these days it’s true, but for serious precision rifle shooting where I need to really dial in a custom load for my particular rifle or for shooting my more expensive calibers like .45-70 Gov’t or .454 Casull or .338 Lapua it’s still much cheaper to reload.

The big key takeaway from all this is that if you’re out to “stick it to Big Ammo” by making your own and saving a mint, you’re just not going to be able to do it. By buying components in bulk and reusing expensive brass, however, you will be able to churn out a lot more ammo for about the same level of expense.

Sounds like a solid deal to me.

And of course, ignoring all the petty concerns of cost, it’s a heck of a lot of fun for me. It may very well be fun for you also, especially if you’re a handy, DIY type who likes to tinker and play with stuff like this. If you want another firearms-related hobby other than shooting, or want to support your competition shooting hobby, reloading is a great way to do that.

Alright, with all that philosophizing out of the way, let’s talk equipment.


Equipment For Cleaning Your Brass

With used brass, there are a few things you have to do in order to reload it that you can skip if you’re using brand new, unfired brass.

There are a few different ways to accomplish this.


Cheap and Old School: Vibratory Dry Media Tumbler

The oldest and cheapest method is the vibratory tumbler.

Basically, you have a plastic tub that sits on top of a motor. You fill that tub with cleaning media (usually corn cob husk or crushed walnut shells), and then dump in your brass. You turn it on, it shakes the brass around with the media, which will polish your cases after a few hours.

Note: vibratory tumblers like this are louder than a Metal band playing a show inside of a freight train that’s being picked up by a tornado, so you’ll want to have it either outside or in the garage. However, they are the cheapest method. You also won’t get much of the primer pocket cleaned, even if you de-prime your cases before you clean, but it does do better than our next method.


Some of my favorite dry media tumblers are:

 

Product

Lyman Auto-Flow with Media (115-Volt)

Top Overall Pick

  • Features the patented Auto-Flo self separating system
  • Remove drain plug for easy media separation
  • Drain pan included
  • Holds 3 pounds of media
  • Clean up to 350 cases per cycle

Our rating

Details

  • Features the patented Auto-Flo self separating system
  • Remove drain plug for easy media separation
  • Drain pan included
  • Holds 3 pounds of media
  • Clean up to 350 cases per cycle

 

Product

Hornady M-1 Case Tumbler (110V) #050202

Top Overall Pick

  • Add to the quality of reloaded ammunition by using the M-1 case...
  • Cyclonic and vibratory action of the Tumbler cleans brass to a...
  • Use the included sifter to separate the polished brass from the...
  • Running time varies based on the condition of the cases and...
  • Drum holds up to (400) 38 Special cases or (180) 30-06 cases

Our rating

Details

  • Add to the quality of reloaded ammunition by using the M-1 case...
  • Cyclonic and vibratory action of the Tumbler cleans brass to a...
  • Use the included sifter to separate the polished brass from the...
  • Running time varies based on the condition of the cases and...
  • Drum holds up to (400) 38 Special cases or (180) 30-06 cases

 

Product

Hornady M-1 Case Tumbler (110V) #050202

Top Overall Pick

  • Add to the quality of reloaded ammunition by using the M-1 case...
  • Cyclonic and vibratory action of the Tumbler cleans brass to a...
  • Use the included sifter to separate the polished brass from the...
  • Running time varies based on the condition of the cases and...
  • Drum holds up to (400) 38 Special cases or (180) 30-06 cases

Our rating

Details

  • Add to the quality of reloaded ammunition by using the M-1 case...
  • Cyclonic and vibratory action of the Tumbler cleans brass to a...
  • Use the included sifter to separate the polished brass from the...
  • Running time varies based on the condition of the cases and...
  • Drum holds up to (400) 38 Special cases or (180) 30-06 cases

Least Hassle, Most Versatile: Ultrasonic Cleaner

One of the newer methods of cleaning cases is the ultrasonic cleaner. Ultrasonic cleaners like this one come in a variety of sizes and can get quite expensive once you start getting into the larger units with greater capacity.

No matter the size though, they all work basically the same way. You have a bucket that you fill with a cleaning liquid (each manufacturer has their own, and they all last forever because you generally mix it around 1 part cleaner to 30 parts water, and you can reuse the mix a few times) and then you drop in your brass and turn the machine on.

Unlike the much cheaper vibratory tumblers, these guys are fairly quiet, and all you’ll hear is a faint humming, making these much more viable in say, a suburban neighborhood or even an apartment. This is because the ultrasonic cleaners use very small but incredibly rapid vibrations.

This has a few advantages over the cheaper dry tumblers, aside from just being less likely to get you lynched by your HOA.

First, it only takes a few minutes, rather than a few hours, which is great. More importantly, it can also do double duty and clean gun parts as well as brass, you just have to use a steel-specific cleaning solution. This will allow you to clean things like a steel pistol frame or barrel in record time (though it’s probably a bit overkill).

I shamelessly use it to clean my AR bolt carrier groups though, and I highly recommend it for that.

Finally, the ultrasonic cleaners will get your brass cleaned out very well on the inside, and may even get the primer pocket fairly clean if you de-cap first.

The downside is that it only cleans your brass, and doesn’t actually polish them all that well. Or at all, really, unless you add some sort of chemical polishing agent, or find an ultrasonic solution with it already in there (let me know if you find one that’s worth a damn and I’ll link it here). You may struggle with getting rid of corrosion with an ultrasonic.

Normal powder fouling though? Forget about it. Check out the cross-section of a case before and after it was cleaned below.

As far as your freshly-cleaned cases, you just lift the basket and out they come, ready to be dried off unless they are heavily corroded, in which case some good old fashioned elbow grease may be required.

The big advantage to ultrasonic cleaners is that they’re the easiest to use by far. You have a little basket that the cases sit in, almost like a deep fryer, and you simply fill the machine with the cleaning solution and water mixture, and then strain and drain it into another container when you’re done and it’s ready for later use.

My preferred ultrasonic cleaner is the Hornady Lock n’ Load 2L.


Most Effective and Most Expensive: Drum Tumbler With Steel Pins

If you don’t mind spending a bit more for the best option, go all in and get a rotary drum tumbler designed to be used with steel pin media.

These tumblers are similar to vibratory tumblers, except they rotate all the way around, not unlike those rock tumblers most of us had as kids. You fill the tumbler with a cleaning liquid just like the ultrasonic cleaner and add in some steel pins. The tumbler acts basically like a front-loading washing machine and cleans your brass inside and out, and does so faster and quieter than a vibratory tumbler.

Your brass will also come completely clean and will be polished to look like new, unlike with an ultrasonic cleaner.

The downsides are the price, the fact that you can’t reuse the cleaning fluid, and the fact that it is still kind of loud. In my personal opinion though, the extra cost is worth it, especially when you get nice, shiny brass that doesn’t require any extra work (just make sure none of the pins got trapped in your cases).

If you’re looking for a rotary tumbler like this, I have two recommendations for you.

First is the Hornaday Rotary Brass Tumbler which is an absolutely great option, but if you have about $30 extra dollars, go ahead and get the Frankfort Arsenal Platinum Series Rotary Tumbler.

This is the one that I choose to polish all my brass with. It’s quiet, and well thought out with a viewport on one side, and a sifter system built in to strain out the cleaning solution, then the pins, leaving the brass behind, shiny and clean.


Choosing a Reloading Press

Alright, case prep is the boring part, now it’s time to talk about the meat of reloading, and that means talking about reloading presses.

Your press is what handles all the hard work of resizing your brass and seating your bullets, and in some cases, it handles priming and powder charging too. More advanced presses will allow you to perform all these operations in sequence, while cheaper and simpler presses require a little more work to get the job done.

There are three basic types of reloading presses: single-stage, turreted, and progressive.

The two I recommend for beginners are single-stage and progress. Turreted presses have kind of fallen out of fashion these days, though they do still have their place.

If you’re just starting out with reloading and aren’t sure if you’re going to stick with it, I recommend going with a single-stage press like this Hornady Lock-N-Load Classic model. This will allow you to do a few dozen rounds in an hour and is a good way to get your feet wet.

Of course, if you’re only loading one caliber, you can go even cheaper and get something like the classic Lee Loader in your caliber of choice. I have one just for my .45-70 loading work because I wanted something cheap and portable, and I only shoot maybe a dozen rounds a year so I wasn’t worried about speed.

Now, if you don’t mind spending a little extra, you can get a progressive press like the Hornady Lock-N-Load AP model, which will let you work much faster, and will also allow you to grow and add things like an automatic case feeder or powder measure to further automate the reloading process.

There are about a million different presses out there, so we’ll save a further in-depth discussion for a full comparison of reloading presses in another article.


Parting Shots

Reloading is a great way to learn and grow as a shooter and is a great way to get more bang for your buck as someone who loves firearms. With the equipment here, all you need to do is add a case trimmer and dies, plus your consumables like powder, brass, bullets, and primers and you’ll be ready to reload in no time.

By

Matthew Collins is an active contributor here at GunBacker. He’s enjoys both competitive shooting and gunsmithing. When you don’t see him at the range, you can catch him on Instagram and other gun related websites.

The Daily Ammo

The latest firearms reviews, gear reviews and safe shooting tips for responsible gun owners.

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