I thought I’d share the results of a little experiment I ran on case cleaning. I have a Thumler’s Model B tumbler and ceramic, and a relatively large ultrasonic cleaner (hold 1.3 gallons of liquid) with an internal heater. I’d always wondered which method was the best solution for cleaning BPCR brass. So I split up a batch of 200 pieces of very dirty brass (fired with black powder and allowed to set without cleaning and with primers still in place for well over two years). I’d acquired these with a rifle I purchased for resale. 100 went into the tumbler with ceramic media, sufficient water to cover the media and a teaspoon of cleaning/polishing solution. 100 went into the ultrasonic cleaner with 1.3 gallons of water and sufficient ultrasonic cleaning concentrate to make a 2% solution. The ultrasonic heater was set to max (approximately 130 degrees F).
After 2 hours the brass in the ultrasonic cleaner was completely clean, inside and out, including 100% of the primer pockets. But there were numerous stains on the outside of the brass, which the ultrasonic cleaner did not remove. Ultrasonic cleaning does not burnish the outside of the cases, so any scratches, splotches, stains etc. were very visible.
After 2 hours the brass in the tumbler was completely clean on the outside with no stains. The burnishing effect of the ceramic media removed all the light scratches, splotches and stains. Inside the case and primer pockets were around 50% clean. The center portion of the primer pockets were clean but there was still some crud all around the inside edge. Several more hours of tumbler cleaning was required to completely remove the remaining crud from the primer pockets and inside the cases. Remember, these were very dirty "aged" cases. The tumbler and ceramic works much faster on recently shot "pre-soaked" cases.
Conclusion: From a speed and cleaning perspective an ultrasonic cleaner is by far the fastest technique. If the primers are removed and the cases tossed in a soaking solution shortly after firing, I have no doubt the ultrasonic cleaner would finish the job in a few minutes. Also, the ultrasonic cleaner was much faster when removing the brass. Just lift up the wire basket and dump the brass in a bucket or bowl of hot clean water to remove any cleaning solution residue. But a good larger ultrasonic cleaner is significantly more expensive, several hundred bucks more, than a good tumbler and ceramic media. Another benefit of ultrasonic cleaning is there are no limitations to case size or configuration. It should work just as well on bottleneck or very small cases.
The cheaper tumbler and ceramic media approach does require much more run-time but will eventually accomplish the same level of cleaning, and it excels in improving the appearance of the outside of the brass. To separate the brass and ceramic media does require tapping and checking the inside of each case to ensure no media is stuck inside. A tumbler and ceramic media is not recommended for bottleneck cases and may not be a good solution for smaller cases.
Cleaning cases with ceramic media can slightly shorten the case due to burnishing of the lip edge or slightly roll over the lip edge. When case lengths are trimmed during the case preparation and reloading process, a chamfering or deburring tool is used to remove metal burrs or whiskers from inside and outside of the case lip. Excessive chamfering will thin the case lip, which the ceramic media can easily burnish (wear down) or bend over.
By the way, Lyman makes a very nice line of ultrasonic cleaners and specialized solutions targeted at the firearms and shooters market. They recently added a large (6.3 quart) ultrasonic cleaner to their current line. For more details go to http://www.lymanproducts.com/lyman/ultrasonics/index.php