Right from the word go, we should get something settled, and that’s the relationship between clean brass and good performance: There ain’t any! However, there’s no denying the appeal of shiny cartridge cases for the handloader. Probably most case cleaning is carried out with a case tumbler or vibrator, using ground nutshells, corncobs, or plastic granules as a polishing medium. The downside is that it takes several hours to get the job done, and while it will polish a large number of cases at once, it only cleans the outside of the cases, and doesn’t entirely eradicate the hardened powder residue which blackens the insides of fired cases or clean the primer pockets.
Over the years I’ve never found any method of satisfactorily cleaning the insides of cases. In the past, I’ve tried chemical cleaners of the sort that requires dipping or soaking the cases, but if they were strong enough to remove the powder residue, they were hazardous, often attacking the copper or the zinc of which brass is composed and weakening it. Some of the liquid case cleaning solutions are adaptable for use with agitation, as in case tumblers, but they didn’t prove entirely satisfactory either.
One method I used to shine-up cases and make them look good was to polish them with fine steel wool while I watched my favourite horse opera on the idiot box. I’ve also used Brasso, a kitchen-type brass cleaner and chrome cleaner to good effect, but these do detract from my enjoyment of TV and require time and elbow grease better reserved for actual reloading. And the insides of the cases and primer pockets were not affected.
While I stand by my previous statement that shiny brass shoots no better than dull brass, badly tarnished cases should always be discarded. Corroded cases coated with verdigris a green residue, accompanied by a pitted surface should definitely be junked. The kind of cleaning we’re talking about concerns normal dulling and darkening which is the result of repeated handling and firing, not actual chemical destruction caused by exposure to acids, salty perspiration or a strong bore solvent.
The logical time to clean brass is after you’ve full-length resized and deprimed it. Cases should be wiped clean before resizing since any gritty gunk sticking to the cases may damage sizing dies, causing scratches that may be reproduced on every subsequent case sized in that die.
After sizing, case lubricant doesn’t need to be removed from the cases if you are going to clean them. Too much lube left on cases prevents the cases clinging to the walls of the chamber on firing and produces increased strain upon the rifle’s locking system. Happily, it will come off during the cleaning cycle.
It’s highly benefical then, that ammunition be free of dirt, grit and lubricants before you put it in the gun to fire. But it serves no useful purpose to have cases polished to a blinding glitter, a nice shine is satisfactory, however, because it gives your reloads a professional appearance. But now you don’t have to settle for less because Hornady is offering their revolutionary new Lock-N-Load Sonic Cleaner which thoroughly cleans cases inside and out in from 90 seconds to ten minutes in a non- traditional way.
Most immersion cleaners use chemicals which function as powerful detergents. They will emulsify and effectively remove a film of lubricant if it is present. At the same time they will loosen dirt and grit, including some of the powder residue that coats the inside of the case and the primer pocket, but only if the brass has been deprimed before soaking, so that, after rinsing and drying, the brass is cleaner than before, but it still looks discoloured and no shinier after the treatment.
The Hornady Lock-N-Load Sonic Cleaner is a compact plastic casing housing a 1.137 litre (1 quart) stainless steel tank, removable plastic basket and a digital timer with five cycles. The unit uses high frequency ultrasonic energy and a specialized cleaning solution to remove carbon residue from the outside and inside of cartridge cases as well as the primer pockets. Unlike immersion-type case cleaning solutions, the ultrasonic action creates microjets that blasts carbon build up off all the surfaces of the brass. It dissolves carbon, dirt and all of the crud left on fired cases.
I followed the instructions that accompanied the Sonic Cleaner and mixed 1/2 an ounce (14 grams) of Hornady’s “One Shot” Sonic Clean solution to 20 ounces (567 grams) of distilled water. I placed 100 .222 Remington cases in the basket and lowered it into the tank. Then I poured in enough of the diluted solution so that the cases were completely submerged, taking care not to exceed the MAX water line which appears on the side of the tank. The user is cautioned to ensure that the cases do not come into contact with the tank.
To get the process started, I plugged in the power cord and set the timer by pressing the SET button until the desired cycle time appears. The dial has six settings - Fast 90, Normal, 180/280, and intensive 380/480 - and the set button determines the length of the cleaning cycle with each cycle time illuminated in a window at the top. Pressing the “ON” button activated the heater and started my desired cleaning cycle - 480 seconds. The unit generates a buzzing sound during operation. Pressing the “OFF” button stops or pauses a cycle; and the “ON” button is pressed again to restart a current cycle.
It pays to check cases periodically to determine how much cleaning time is needed. My batch of .222 cases were totally cleaned after two 480 second (8 minute) cycles. eHornady warns not to cycle longer than three consecutive 480 second cycles (24 minutes) without allowing the unit time to cool off - at least 3 minutes.
Brass that is only moderately tarnished can be made to look as good as new after two 480 second cycles, but if they are extremely dirty, it may be necessary to extend the cleaning process for another 480 second cycle to get better results.
When the solution becomes discoloured or really cloudy, it should be replaced. And after the cases have been cleaned they should be rinsed in a bucket of clean water and allowed to thoroughly dry before being reloaded.
The test Lock-n-Load Sonic Cleaner has 1.137 litre built-in tank with a capacity for about 100 cases the size of .243 Winchester or 400 .357 Magnum cases. A larger LNL Magnum Sonic Cleaner about twice the size is available at roughly double the cost for reloaders who want to clean larger batches of brass.
After use, I disconnected the power plug and drained the cleaning solution into the tank by lifting and tilting the basket with the cleaned cases. I dumped the cases out into the bucket of boling-hot water and jiggled them about for a few minutes until they were rinsed and had absorbed enough heat to start drying of their own accord. Then I placed them in an electric oven set on 150 degrees to ensure that there was no moisture left inside the cases. Distilled water will minimize water spots on the cases when they’re drying, but I used rain water from our storage tank and it worked just fine. Cases may not have looked quite as as pristine as factory-new unprimed brass, but they were shiny enough for most tastes.
Going on my initial experience with the Hornady Lock-N- Load Sonic Cleaner, I’d mix fresh solution for each batch of brass to ensure the best results. After being used to clean cases, pour the used solution out over one of the BACK corners of the tank. This will minimize the possibility of water making contact with the internal electrical components and causing a short. Do not pour the cleaning solution out over the front of the unit. If you won’t be cleaning cases for an extended period of time, empty the tank and rinse it with fresh water before storing it away.
A friend of mine who shoots a Sharps 45-110 with blackpowder loads was driven to distraction trying to clean his fired cases. After using one of these Hornady Sonic Cleaners, he was delirious with joy. He told me that his cases came out pristine and looked like new.
The Hornady Sonic Cleaner can be usd to clean and polish other items such as small gun parts, metallic shooting and reloading equipment. It is great for removing all the crud that accumulates in reloading dies. For this purpose, you can either use distilled water in the tank without any cleaning solution or what is best, a special Sonic Gun Solution available from Hornady. Read and follow the instructions on the cleaning solution bottle, but don’t risk cleaning metal parts in the same solution as brass.
A tumbler-style case cleaner only cleans the outside of your cases and has very little effect upon internal powder residue that’s been cooked-on by heat and pressure. If so, you might want to consider buying the Hornady Sonic Case Cleaner. I found it to be a compact and attractively styled unit that’s simple to use, quiet to operate, easy to clean and not only capable of cleaning brass cases, but also restoring a high percentage of their original finish. Best of all, however, it completes its work in a fraction of the time taken by a the best tumbler.
This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, October 2011