Since you are here, I will assume you want your used cases to shine again after the shooting. And this article puts ultrasonic vs rotary vs vibratory tumbler in an open field for comparison.
Well, 1st you must consider the budget because the price of dry tumblers starts at $60 whereas wet tumblers will begin at around $160. But the price is justified and in this guide, you will find out how each performs for a given set of rules.
We will look into all 3 types of brass case tumblers. Reveal our methodology of testing the tumblers and disclose the results, trying not to be biased. Though they all are made for the same purpose, the performance can vary for each type.
Let us begin with the methodology of the test. First, we will set some checkpoints and observer how each type of tumbler performs.
- Must be a good clean, Should remove most (visual) dirt, rust, and burnt gun powder residue.
- Inside, outside & flash hole cleaning.
- Cost and longevity of the media.
- Level of difficulty in separating the cleaning media & the cleaned cases.
- Other steps, that may be necessary before the cases are ready to reload.
The ground rules are also numbered in their priority, which means even if separating the media after cleaning is easy but the cleaning is not great, we rank that type of brass tumbler down.
Before we proceed, let me 1st present a brief introduction on the types of brass tumblers and their media.
There are 3 types of brass tumblers.
- Vibratory Case Tumblers
- Rotary Case Tumblers
- Ultrasonic Case Tumblers.
First contender Vibratory Tumblers.
This is the first type of tumbler to hit the market for case cleaning, and like the name suggests it cleans cases by utilizing vibration. This is also the most popular brass cleaning method used because it is the most cost-efficient. Basically, there is a plastic or steel tub on top of a motor, and when the motor is turned on it vibrates whatever is inside the tub.
To begin case cleaning you require 2 (or 3) things.
- Dry media (Crushed Corn Cob or Crushed Walnut Shell)
- Used dirty cases
- Polishing agent (if needed)
The cleaning process involves placing dry media tumblers and dirty cases in the tub and a polishing agent to bring the shine back of the cases (optional). The motor underneath vibrates the tub vigorously creating friction between the media and casing to perform cleaning & polishing, inside and outside. But not so effective with the primer pocket (flash hole). Vibratory Tumbler can use 2 different types of dry media.
1. Crushed Corn Cob
The crushed corn cob is used when the cases are not too dirty, the toughness is just enough to remove dirt without damaging the brass casing. Ground corn cob can be bought fresh or mixed with a polishing compound. Corn Cob can also be used in rotary tumblers and usually have a better result than vibratory cleaning (only on the outside).
2. Crushed Walnut Shell
The crushed walnut shell is used for cleaning cartridges that are really dirty or rusted. Crushed walnut just like corn cob is environmentally friendly (i.e. if you are looking for a green solution). And it comes in both untreated & treated (mixed with polishing compound).
Lifetime of medias
The lifetime of these media can vary according to use. They usually lose their roughness on multiple-use and leaves fine sticky dust that is harder to clean. The rule of thumb for replacement would be the time it takes to clean the cases. If the time to cleans the cases using the media doubles or triples when compared to the time taken by new media then it is a good time to change the media.
It is always better to know which compound is used in the treated media if you are buying the treated media. Because some polishing compound can leave color residue after polishing. Red Rouge for example leaves a subtle red hue on the brasses if the polishing compound is used excessively.
Next up Rotary Tumblers.
This type of case tumbler cleans the cases in a similar manner to that of a front-loading washing machine. This technology is relatively new when compared to the vibratory type. This was designed to use stainless steel pins, with water and a little bit of cleaning solution but you can use the vibratory media (without water of course) as well.
To begin case cleaning you will require:
- Stainless steel media
- Dirty brass cases
- Polishing solution (could be any mild citric acid, soap, or “Lemi Shine”).
You begin by dumping the dirt brass in the container, along with stainless steel pins, water, and cleaning solution. Keeping in mind not to exceed 3/4th of the container, as a fully loaded container will have little to no tumbling effecting hence hardly any cleaning takes place.
The stainless still pins are capable to clean and remove rust, inside, outside, and in the flash hole. The pins are also a one-time investment and can be used continuously without the need to replace them unless you lose them in the sink.
To polish your brass cases just add a little bit of polishing solution you want to use (soap or Lemi shine – your decision). The job the polishing solution performs is, it removes the dirt that gets stuck with the case due to lube applied during the previous reloading.
Warning, use the polishing solution in a very small quantity. Because the polishing solution is either an acid or alkali, and both of them dissolve zink in the brass leaving only copper and hence reducing the durability and lifetime of the cases. How much to use? A good ratio of water:polishing agent would be instructed on the cleaning solution but if it is not I suggest 40:1, this is just the starting point and you should find your own perfect ratio.
Lastly, Ultrasonic Tumblers.
This type of brass case tumbler is the latest technology. It uses ultrasonic sound waves to vibrate the water molecules and with the help of liquid soap or other cleaning solution it cleans the cases.
You will require the following to begin case cleaning:
- Liquid soap or cleaning solution.
- Dirty brass Cases
- & Water
Begin by pouring water in the ultrasonic tumbler and mixing the water with liquid soap or “Lemi Shine” and turn the heat function “on” in the ultrasonic tumbler. After heating to an appropriate temperature, add the dirty cases to the ultrasonic tumbler and turn on the cleaning function for 20 – 30 minutes as you see fit.
You do not require any media because here the water becomes the media as ultrasonic sound waves are beamed through them. And since it is ultrasonic it is practically noiseless.
So with the introduction out of the way let disclose how they perform against each other in a controlled experiment following the rule checks.
Why do we need to clean cases? We reloaders clean them to avoid damaging the reloading dies, gun barrel & increase the number of times a brass case can be recycled.
We are performing these time-consuming tasks so that we have clean and shiny brass to begin reloading. One may ask – why do we need to clean?
We reloaders, clean cases to avoid damaging the reloading dies & gun barrel. The presence of dirt, rust or burnt gun powder residue can easily damage the dies while sizing or bullet seating. Damage the gun barrel while shooting and at times even jam the gun. And it is not only the dies but the brass case is also damaged which reduces the number of times any case can be recycled. It is more like performing maintenance to increase longevity and increase cost-efficiency.
Here is a sample of cases that were used for testing the effective cleaning of the brass cases. On the right of the pictures, are fresh bullets before shooting them on the range. And on the left are pictures of once-fired cases with the suppressor. I used about 20 deprimed cases for this experiment. And the result is given below.
Comparison on effective cleaning of tumblers
The pictures above show results after 1 hour of tumbling action. And the results are clear that Rotary Tumblers cleans the best.
Usually, Ultrasonic Tumblers gives better result than shown here in the picture. Maybe the amount of “Lemi Shine” I used was not adequate.
Cleaning the Flash Hole & Primer Pocket.
The flash hole & primer pocket is a tough spot to clean as it has tiny space but a vital point. And it might surprise you, that not all tumblers can reach these places.
The flash hole & primer pocket needs to be clean and maintained in perfect shape. Several things can go wrong due to a deformed Primer Pocket.
- While seating primer it can burst due to pressure (i.e. why you should always prime pointing away from any body parts).
- It can end up protruding from the case and can jam the gun in the chamber.
The effective cleaning for the flash hole is shown in the pictures above & the results for vibratory tumbler are the worst, it is almost as if no cleaning took place there. On top of that, I had to poke and remove the media there were stuck in the flash hole.
The Ultrasonic Tumblers did a better job at cleaning this tough spot but keep in mind the results could have been better but due to not adequate cleaning solution the results are not the best it usually gives.
The Rotary Tumbler had the best results when cleaning the flash hole & the primer pocket. But had a few stuck stainless steel pins in the flash hole.
In summary, the flash hole is best cleaned by rotary tumblers followed by ultrasonic tumblers. And let us leave vibratory tumbler out of this comparison because in my Honest Opinion it would be an insult to other types of brass case tumbler.
The Insides of the Case
The insides of a brass case need to be clean as well because unclean brass can affect the burning rate of the gun powder and affect pressure buildup inside the brass case, ultimately resulting in a slower velocity than predicted.
The insides of a case are harder to take pictures of. And in this test as well the rotary tumbler cleans the best, in the second position it is the ultrasonic and vibratory doing the least effective job.
Cleaning Media and its Reusability
I have already touched on this topic above for vibratory, rotary, and ultrasonic tumblers. And would just summarize that in this section.
Crushed Corn Cob – good for mild dirty cases, gets used up, and needs to be replaced over time hence cost builds over time.
Crushed Walnut shell – Good for extremely dirty cases, gets used up, and needs to be replaced over time. Hence cost builds over time.
Stainless Steel Pins – Good for all types of cases and can be reused indefinitely.
Polishing Agents – Polishing agents are all the same required regular replacement as it gets used up. One cheap option is “Lemi Shine“.
Here we discuss how long it takes to clean the cases because some can take as long as 8 hours and still have not satisfactory results. Whereas some ultrasonic cleaners can get the job done in just 30 minutes and rotary tumblers can take about 2 to 3 hours.
Level of Difficulty in Separating the Cases and Media
Here we will compare how hard it is to separate the cleaned cases from the media.
For Vibratory Tumblers separating is quite easy if you have a shifter, Just lift the tub and pour the content through the shifter and let the shifter do its job in separate the cases from the media. The problem with this method is the flying dust particles, which are very unhealthy and easily stick with other objects in the immediate vicinity.
For Rotary Tumblers separating the media requires two shifters, one to catch the cases and the second to catch the steel pins and it requires some strength as the container becomes heavy when you have about 800 cases, steel pins, and water in the container
For Ultrasonic Tumblers it is the easiest it just lifts the cases and done. By far this is the easiest way to separate cases from media.
In short, Ultrasonic being the easiest, Vibratory being medium, and Rotary being the hardest. But for Ultrasonic and Rotary tumblers one extra step includes drying the cases.
Other Necessary Steps to Begin Reloading.
All tumblers require 1 or 2 extra steps (besides visual inspection) before you can take the cases and begin reloading.
Vibratory tumblers as shown above does not clean the primer pocket that well hence you need to clean them separately (time-consuming).
Both Rotary and Ultrasonic Tumblers use water and hence you will need to dry the cases before begin reloading. The cheap way is to lay the cases in direct sunlight some manufactures make equipment to dry the cases inside as well (check here).
The overall cost can be hard to evaluate as there are many factors but we will try to evaluate nonetheless. For the sake of calculations, I will assume that we will we are going to operate the tumblers continuously for 2 months (61 days). One more thing I’ll not disclose the tumblers I used for this evaluation.
|Description||Vibratory Tumblers||Rotary Tumblers||Ultrasonic Tumblers|
|Initial Cost||Low Cost = $65||Medium Cost = $160||Medium Cost =$195|
|Cost of Media||Requires Replacement $20*5 = $100||One time investment|
|Polishing Agent||Low cost = $22||Very Cheap = $4||Very Cheap = $4|
|Time required for 2 months – Electricity cost||8 hours = 17.87 cent |
$10.9 for 2 months
|2 & half hours = 4.38 cents, $2.67 for 2months||Half Hour = 3.2 Cents|
$2 for 2 months
|Other equipment needed||Shifter = $8||Shifter and Dryer = |
$35 + $100 = $135
|Dryer = $100|
As some may say Quality comes at a Price, which is true in this sector. Because we have seen that The rotary tumblers are the best at cleaning but also the most expensive. The ultrasonic gives satisfactory results but to let you know I have chosen a 6L tank and the price varies with the size of the tank.
And as for the vibratory tumbler, the cost increases as you will have to replenish the media over time and becomes more expensive than the other types of brass case tumblers.
Ultrasonic vs Rotary vs Vibratory Tumbler – and the Winner?
We had a detailed review of all types of tumblers and here I will summarize them announce the winner.
The Vibratory Tumbler
|Small Initial Cost|
|Many types of Media to choose from|
|Requires less effort in media separation|
|The cleaning is not satisfactory|
|The primer pocket is never cleaned|
|Occasionally media get stuck in the flash hole.|
|Can’t remove rust or heavy tarnish|
|Generates unbearable noise|
|Produces Lead Dust|
|Cost racks up with media replacement.|
The initial cost is low but the need for media replacement soon catches up with the price of a rotary tumbler. And it produces lead dust which is highly poisonous when inhaled.
The Rotary Tumblers
|Saves financially in the long run|
|Removed lead dust is dissolved in water hence easier to dispose of.|
|Removes rust and heavy tarnish|
|High Initial Cost|
|Media Separation requires effort|
|The cases need rinsing to remove soap water|
|Media may occasionally get stuck in the flash hole|
|Requires drying before reloading|
The rotary tumbler is an excellent brass cleaner the reaches the tough spots and cleans them. But it has a high initial cost, but in the long run, it is financially more efficient. Read rotary tumbler comparison to find more about it.
The Ultrasonic Tumbler
|Performs satisfactory cleaning|
|Case removal is the simplest|
|Cheapest in terms of electricity cost|
|Requires the least amount of time|
|Easy disposal of lead contaminant|
|High initial cost|
|Cases require rinsing to remove soap water|
|Cases require drying before reloading|
If noise is an issue definitely go with the Ultrasonic Tumblers as they are almost noiseless. The cleaning is satisfactory and it cost less than rotary tumblers. And if you have decided to go with ultrasonic tumblers lets me help you in narrowing down the choices.
Rotary tumblers are hands down the best but are a little noisy even with the rubber coating Frankford Arsenal applies but it is bearable and expensive. The ultrasonic tumblers cost a little less at the same time being noiseless and satisfactory cleaning.
But if the initial high cost is a major issue then going for vibratory tumblers is preferable but I suggest thinking again before taking the final decision. And in this head-to-head comparison of ultrasonic vs rotary vs vibratory tumbler, I believe rotary take to spot with ultrasonic felling short by a tiny bit. And with the growing technology, it may not be surprising if in the future I recommend ultrasonic instead of rotary tumblers.