Sunday, October 30, 2016

Sorting Brass

It has been a rather rainy weekend, so I decided to get to sorting brass casings that I've picked up at the range. I've actually been pretty good during the past year with getting the brass I've collected sorted into at least the various calibers. (Plus, I've had enough previously sorted and cleaned that I haven't had to resort to the brass I've been picking up at the county range or in the desert). But I have a 5 gallon bucket pretty full of brass that I'd picked up over a period of several years prior.

I have certain things I want to accomplish when performing an initial sort of the brass. First, and foremost, is to separate the brass into its different calibers. But I also use the opportunity to provide an initial evaluation of the brass as to its physical condition and suitability for reloading (i.e., whether it is dented, filled with debris, or an unsuitable material such as steel or aluminum). Obviously, I try not to pick up steel casings or the aluminum "Blazer" casings while at the range, but occasionally one finds its way into the bag or bucket I am using.

For a long time, I did not pick up spent shell casings unless it was for a caliber that I used. However, about 10 years ago, I changed my practice so that I started picking up everything, since there was always the possibility that I might later acquire a firearm in a different caliber, or I could pass the spent casings to a friend or relative that also reloaded ammunition. With that it mind, it was interesting going through the bucket, because each "strata" represented a different season of shooting and provided some insight into what people have been shooting.

As mentioned, I don't gather steel casings. Thus, the Russian calibers are underrepresented: although there are plenty of steel casings from 7.62x54R and 7.62x39 to be seen at the county range or various popular shootings spots in the desert, it is rare to find spent brass for those calibers. Also, large rifle calibers, in general, are rare to find; probably because those shooters are more careful to pick up their spent brass.

The most numerous calibers represented are 9 mm and .223/5.56 mm, as would be expected. .45 ACP was consistently represented as well, but in much lower quantities. Interestingly, though, in digging through the bucket, it was at least a couple years back before I started coming across .40 S&W in any number. Either people shooting .40 S&W have become more diligent about picking up their shell casings, or it lost a lot of its popularity recently. Equally interesting, however, is that in the same layer without any .40 S&W, I came across a relatively large number of casings for .38 S&W. If you are not familiar with that cartridge, it is an obsolete caliber that was mostly replaced by .38 Special in the early 20th Century (with the exception of the British, which adopted it as the caliber for their military revolvers in the 1930's). The casing for .38 S&W is similar in size and length to the 9mm Luger, except for having a rim, of course. There were small quantities of .30-06 and .308 (7.62 NATO), 7.62x54R, and .300 Win. Magnum, and a small number of .380 ACP and other miscellaneous pistol calibers also represented.

Various 9 mm calibers: .380 ACP (aka 9 mm Kurz or 9x17 mm) on left; 9x18mm in middle; and 9 mm Luger (aka 9x19 mm or 9 mm Parabellum) on right.
Most of the time, it is fairly easy to sort for the specific calibers. Most of the casings will generally have the caliber as part of the head stamp. However, not all do, which may require a more careful examination.

One caliber, in particular, which can present some difficulty is the 9 mm Luger (also known as 9x19 mm and 9 mm Parabellum) because there are other calibers (the .380 ACP and Russian 9x18 mm) so close in size (see photograph above). If I have a casing that appears to be 9 mm Luger, but the caliber is not indicated on the head stamp, I will compare it against a known 9 mm casing before putting it into a container.

Some .40 S&W casings in various shape. 
On this initial sorting, I also consider the physical condition of the cases. The primary concern is whether the casing is dented or deformed. A common source of damage to a casing is during ejection, especially from a semi-automatic firearm. Some models are more likely to damage a casing, depending on force of the ejection and the specific mechanism of ejection. Other times, a casing may be dented or bent by someone stepping on it or a vehicle driving over it.

If a casing is too damaged, I will discard it. However, in many cases, deformities can be corrected during the reloading process. For instance, the photograph above shows three .40 S&W casings. The right-most is an intact casing, while the mouths of the casings on the left are slightly bent. This type of deformity can be corrected by the sizing and necking dies when reloading the cartridge.

A .308 shell casing. The striations on the outside of the casing show that this particular cartridge had been fired in a firearm using a fluted chamber, such as an HK 91. 
Even multiple deformations to the neck or mouth of a cartridge do not necessarily require a cartridge to be discarded so long as the sizing and necking dies can fit into the neck. For instance, the .308 casing above, despite the damage to the mouth and neck of the cartridge, is probably still a good candidate for reloading (at least for plinking ammunition).

A couple .223 shell casings with damaged mouths.
On the other hand, damage to the lip of a casing is more serious. I've seen instances where the dent is so sharp that a reloading die will actually catch on damaged portion and crumple or tear the neck of the casing. The photograph above shows two .223 (5.56) casings where the lip of the casing is bent in fairly sharply, and the left is actually curled down slightly. I would expect the casing on the left to be further damaged during the reloading process. The casing on the right might be salvageable, but not really worth the hassle. I will be discarding both.

Other types of damage
Although the photograph above is not very clear, it is focusing on other types of damage you might (going left to right) see to the neck, shoulder or body of a spent shell casing.

One defect that I sometimes see is a slight dent--almost a crease--running vertically along the neck of the cartridge. Such damage is going to weaken the case neck, possibly resulting in a ruptured neck, so discard it.

Sometimes there will be dings on the shoulder of the casing. If very slight, the case may be salvageable; but in many cases, such dings are sharp and distinct (such as the case striking a thin piece of metal), which probably would result in the metal being weakened. Unless such a ding is hardly more than a surface blemish, I believe it is better to play it safe and just discard the casing.

In other instances you may see dents or dings to the body of the casing. Although hard to see, the third casing from the right has been dented and slightly flattened on one side, probably from being stepped on or driven over by a vehicle. Throw it out!

The two cases on the far right have sharp dents to the middle of the cases, probably also from a rough extraction process, perhaps hitting the shell deflector on an AR style rifle. Again, there is the risk of the metal being weakened, so just throw it out.

Both these cases are marked .30-06. The left is a case that has been resized for a different caliber, while the right is a normal .30-06 case.
If that was not enough, you may also come across cases that have been deliberately reshaped for a different caliber or chambering. For instance, the photograph above shows two cases, each of which is headstamped as being .30-06 caliber. The one on the right is a correctly shaped .30-06, while the case on the left with the sharply defined shoulder has obviously been reformed for a different chambering: perhaps a wildcat or an obsolete cartridge based off of the .30-06 case. I don't know what caliber, though, so it, too, will go into the discard pile.

Some loaded ammunition I found.
Sometimes you will come across loaded ammunition, whether dropped by accident, ejected after a malfunction, or simply forgotten. I've come across single rounds, such as shown above, and even partial boxes that were left behind. I suppose it is up to you to decide whether you would chance using it. I, personally, would never use an unknown person's hand-loaded ammunition because I don't know if it is within normal specifications or limits for that cartridge. Since I cannot tell if the middle cartridge was a hand-load or not, I would not use it; I will probably pull the bullet, dump the powder, and reuse the case, though. The other two--the aluminum cased Blazer and the steel cased 5.45--would probably be safe to use. Nevertheless, out of caution, I will probably discard them as well.


  1. With regard to found ammunition, hold onto at least samples of what you find. Recently, I wanted to put together a small collection of different common calibers to show a friend interesting in buying his first firearm. While I was able to pull several sample rounds from my personal ammunition inventory, I also included a couple of samples I'd found at the range.

  2. In a perfect world, shooters of various calibers would would shoot in the same stall or area every time, making the collection but more important sorting of brass much easier. However, the reality of that scenario is close to impossible. What is possible however, is a looking for good brass. A tip, check the lip for good round shapes!

    1. Yes, you are right. Murphy's law seems to show up the most if there is a problem with the neck or lip as you run the brass through the dies.