If you reload ammunition, sooner or later you're going to have to clean your brass. While there are many ways to accomplish this, the two, primary or ‘traditional' methods are tumbling (or ‘rotary') and vibratory. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages. Either will allow you to clean and polish cartridge brass. The issue becomes which meets your needs; i.e., where the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
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When I was actively shooting competition, I needed to clean brass on a regular basis. I also needed to clean a lot of brass, in various calibers, and I didn't have any desire to spend considerable time doing it and/or figuring out which worked ‘best.' I needed it to work for me - period. To that end, along about 1987, I delved deeply into the wallet and purchased an RCBS Sidewinder Case Tumbler. Given that, 23 years later, it's still cleaning my brass, I guess I can say it has worked for me.
One Action ‘Better' Than Another?
At one time, tumblers dominated the market; in part, due to their use in rock collecting. This is why, to this day, many still use the term "tumbler" even when referring to a vibratory cleaner. It's also why the expression "tumble your brass" is synonymous for cleaning cartridge brass. Be that as it may, the terms are, for all intents and purposes, self-explanatory. One type of machine uses vibratory action to allow the cleaning media to work on the cartridge cases. The other uses a rotating action which causes the brass to ‘tumble' while the media does its work.
Today, vibratory cleaners now dominate. That does not mean that enlightenment has been achieved as to which action is ‘better' for cleaning brass. Some will equivocate and say that a vibratory model cleans better, while a tumbler polishes better. Others flat-out stipulate that a tumbler, given the action of the cases, does both better. On the flip side, proponents of vibratory action insist that with a little experimenting...
In the end, the ‘debate' is endless and irresolvable. Reality is that the decision, for many people, seems to revolve around two, basic issues. Simply put, tumblers are, typically, noisier and substantially more expensive. Thus, domestic circumstance and personal economics often trump other considerations. Lest one think this a pernicious or bias observation, if you were to consult any number of internet forum threads on this topic, you would find repeated and near universal reference to noise levels and cost.
For my purposes, ‘noise' was not the primary consideration. Even living in an apartment as I was when I first purchased the Sidewinder, I simply made sure to tumble during the day, when the neighbors were gone; something the timer helps with (more in a minute). At this time, I have a garage; thereby making ‘noise' a bit moot.
Insofar as economics... I have to admit, it was expensive nearly a quarter century ago. If I had to pay the Sidewinder's $530.95 MSRP today, I'd probably give it a long, hard think. Even with the ‘street price' falling somewhere around $350 - $425, when set against the $70 - $200 price range for very workable vibratory cleaners, that's a big chunk to swallow. (A competing tumbler, made by Thumler's, is intended primarily for rock cleaning/polishing; but, has found a niche with reloaders who find the $180 - $200 price range an acceptable tradeoff against the better ergonomics/utility for cartridge reloading designed into the Sidewinder.)
You'll note, however, that neither of these considerations, noise and price, has anything to do with the actual cleaning of the brass. While I personally fall into the camp which holds that a tumbling action is superior for cleaning/polishing, I do not begrudge or argue others' faith in vibratory methods. What I do, or did, consider were two criteria, directly related to the cleaning process.
The first criterion was the amount of brass one could clean in a single session. Remember, I purchased my Sidewinder 23 years ago. At the time, the Sidewinder was capable of holding/cleaning more cases than virtually any vibratory cleaner then available. Given that I was competing in High Power and IPSC, among others, that meant a semi-automatic feeding habit that had to be sustained. With the Sidewinder holding, in theory (more on that in a minute), the equivalent of one hundred .30-06 or three hundred .38 Special cases, it meant fewer cleaning runs.
This also factored into my second criterion...
Choice of Media
Basically, there are two choices in cleaning media: Dry and Liquid. Dry media is generally some form of crushed walnut shells and/or corn cob mixed with some form of polishing paste or liquid, including rouge, car wax/polish, ad infinitum. While prepackaged mixes are readily available, many economically-minded individuals will visit their local pet stores and save money by picking up crushed walnut bedding for around $20 for a 25-lb. bag and create their own mix rather than ‘shelling out' (oh... that's a three-fer... :o), say $15 - $25 for a 7-lb. to 12-lb. container of Lyman mix. The trouble is, you have to be very careful with these home mixes not to use the ‘wrong' ingredients; i.e., some ‘polishes' have the potential to weaken cases.
Liquid or "wet" media is exactly what the name implies and is typically some concoction of cleaning solution and ‘acidic' ingredient; e.g., Dawn dishwashing liquid and vinegar will work, but so will some other ‘grease/oil' cutter and lemon juice or other mild acid. In fact, RCBS markets their Sidewinder Liquid Media Case Cleaner at an MSRP of $7.95 for an 8 oz. bottle; describing it thus:
"This is a concentrated liquid case cleaner for use with the RCBS Sidewinder Case Tumblers, as well as tumblers from other manufacturers. This compound, a combination of salts and mild acids, is a high speed, aggressive agent especially useful on badly stained or soiled brass cases."
In the instructions which come with the Sidewinder, RCBS lists the advantages and disadvantages of each type of media:
Dry Media -
Advantages: Ease of handling and storage; Less chance of damage due to spillage
Disadvantages: Significantly slower cycle time; Will not clean badly stained cases in any reasonable length of time; Requires shaker box to separate media from case; Each case and/or primer pocket must be check and cleared of media particles
Liquid Media -
Advantages: Speed (cleans in minutes, not hours); Aggressiveness (will clean the most badly soiled cases in the minimum length of time); Easy clean up (just drain, flush, and dry)
Disadvantages: Must rinse cases immediately to prevent staining; Need access to an oven to dry cases quickly; Must wait for cases to dry before using
Since the Sidewinder is capable of using both types of media (vibratory cleaners are limited to dry media) and RCBS markets both types of media, as well as a vibratory case cleaner, I'd infer they have no real dog in the hunt that is the debate over which is the ‘better' media.
On the other hand... I do. Well, not so much in the sense of which cleans ‘better,' but in the context of which works ‘better' for my circumstances. Put simply, I personally loathe dry media. I won't argue the pros and cons; neither will I debate an endless variety of mixes and ‘tricks.' It is what it is and, if you are one who prefers dry media, then rest assured the Sidewinder works just as well therewith.
For my purposes, however, the advantages of liquid media include, but are not limited to...
* I can clean a variety of case sizes in a single cycle. If I want to run .45 ACP, .30-06, 9mm, and .223 cases together, I don't have to worry about them becoming stuck or ‘welded' together.
* I don't have to worry about cleaning out primer pockets and cleaning off residue; i.e., I find it a trifle grating to have to perform a variety of cleaning steps.
Since vibratory case cleaners aren't designed to work with liquid media, that leaves...
The Sidewinder Case Tumbler is divided into two, main components: the base/motor and the drum assembly. While some of the specifics may have changed slightly on current models (more under ‘warranty'), here's what my instruction manual and the company website says by way of description:
Base/Motor: A ball bearing, thermally protected motor; Self-aligning rear bearings with large surface area for uniform loading and long life; Industrial grade timing belt drive system for positive drive and no slippage; Low tension drive system for maximum bearing life; Both 120 and 240 VAC models available (product numbers 87000 and 87005 respectively); Elastomer feet to cushion and dampen sounds while providing minimum slippage; Twelve hour timer, U.L. listed, adjustable from 0 - 12 hours with automatic shut-off with a "hold" position for continuous running
Drum Assembly: Angled, tapered, hexagonal drum with internal ribs impart a superior tumbling action, circulating the cases forward, around, and under the rotating mass; Chemically resistant, Polyurethane drum; Two covers - a solid one to retain dry media and liquid spills, a perforated one to strain out the media
The Sidewinder has a 12" x 11 ¾" footprint. The base stands approximately 8" in the front and 7" in the rear; with the rollers upon which the drum rests being ¼" and 2" lower respectively. The three prong power cord is 6 ½' in length. The drum is 9" tall, with a maximum base diameter of 8" and a mouth opening slightly under 3 ¾". Drum capacity, as stated, is a theoretical equivalent of one hundred .30-06 or three hundred .38 Special cases; but, that is going to depend on a variety of factors - including the type of media used.
While many will cite the ‘fact' that tumblers hold more cases than vibratory cleaners (well, at least, they used to), reality is that you never really want to ‘max out' a cleaner. Remember, you can only fit just so much in a container. More cases equals less media and vice versa. In the end, while it requires a certain amount of experimentation, what you're after is the balance point of case/media content and cleaning time for your particular unit. Once you establish that, you will develop a sense for how long it will take for a given case size or mix of sizes.
Use is straightforward. If your cases aren't filthy and you're using the RCBS Liquid Media, then a couple of ounces of media in a gallon of water (the recommended dilution being 2 - 4 oz.) is more than the Sidewinder will hold with, say, a mix of around one hundred to a hundred and twenty .30-06, .223, .45 ACP, and 9mm cases. (I could and have fit more, but I don't shoot like I used to and time isn't as much of an issue as it was in the days when there was a match one could get to, with a reasonable drive, practically every weekend.) The idea is that, according to the instructions, the "level of the liquid should not be above the lower edge of the mouth of the drum when it is in position on the base." This is the major reason behind the ‘angled' seating of the drum on the base; i.e., to help prevent leaks. Given that the bottle for the RCBS Liquid Media has graduation marks in 2 oz. increments, I simply add 1 ounce to a couple of quarts of water for a load of this size; storing any extra and/or the once-used fluid in a gallon-size pickle jar I picked up somewhere, years ago.
Once the brass and media is in the drum, you attach the solid, friction-fit cap and place the drum on the rollers. I've never needed to set the timer for more than 2 hours when using the liquid media to achieve an acceptable level of cleaning and ‘polish.' One of the ‘eccentricities' of the timer is the "hold position" noted above; i.e., if you wish to run a cycle of less than an hour, you have to turn the knob beyond the 1 hr. mark, then move it back. If you wish to set it for continuous run, simply set it for less than an hour without turning the knob past the 1 hr. mark.
I will usually run two loads with a single mix since I generally clean my brass after one or two firings. I also use good rubber gloves while handling the liquid media. Once you've determined the cases are sufficiently clean, replace the solid cap with the perforated one (both are included). The twenty-four, 1/3" holes quickly drain the liquid and act as a bit of a sifter for the dry media; though you can never seem to get all the dry media out by simply using the cap - thus, requiring some sort of additional screen or separator. Once the liquid media is removed, simply remove the cap and stick the drum directly under a faucet and let the water flow; flushing the cases and drum simultaneously. (RCBS says of their liquid media: "This diluted solution is harmless to all standard sewer systems and may be disposed of by pouring down any sink." Note, however, that they said this "diluted solution" - i.e., 2 - 4 oz. of concentrate to a gallon of water.)
The drum is tapered - note the 8" base and the 3 ¾" mouth. There is an 8" diameter, spoke ‘wheel' around the mouth which contacts the rollers and maintains the angle of the drum on the base. Many erroneously use this as a ‘handle.' I don't recommend this as such use can break the thing or pull it loose from the drum itself. (Remember, especially when using liquid media, you've got a certain amount of weight between the brass and media.)
I usually allow cases to dry on a towel overnight; turning them a couple of times early in the drying process to keep them from simply sitting on a ‘wet spot.' You can dry them in a conventional oven by placing them on a metal sheet and setting the oven at 200 degrees F. I don't like the oven method for the same reason(s) that "cooking times may vary."
Insofar as ‘noise,' that too is going to be dependent on the media chosen. Fill the drum with cases and dry media and the thing is almost ‘quiet.' Partially fill the drum with cases and dry media and you'll hear it in the next room. Fill the drum with cases and liquid media... Don't you have a movie currently playing at the local movie theater that you don't want to have to wait for on DVD?
Maintenance and Warranty
Maintenance is simple. According to RCBS -
"Prior to running the unit, put a drop of medium weight oil on each of the bearings; repeat oiling approximately each 20 hours of operation."
Cleaning of the drum is accomplished with the flushing stage when using liquid media. Dry media can be a bit more problematic; especially if you've got a little too much polishing agent. Once again, Dawn dishwashing liquid can be your friend. However, the few times I've run dry media in the Sidewinder, I've simply used liquid media for the next cleaning session; simultaneously cleaning the cases and the drum.
They do note not to attempt to make any adjustments or repairs to the electrical system; i.e., contact customer service for this. Speaking of which, bear in mind that the Sidewinder now comes with a limited, two-year warranty. I'm not sure why that is. (I have my unsubstantiated suspicions, but won't share them here.) Let's just say that RCBS has had an excellent reputation when it comes to customer service.
In December of 2008, knowing that I was going to be "in the neighborhood" (loosely defined) while visiting friends at Christmas time, I took my Sidewinder by RCBS in Oroville, California. I walked in the front door and simply asked them if they could give it the ‘once over' as I had not done any competitive shooting in some time and it had been sitting in its box for 'awhile.' (Yes. I still have the original box after nearly a quarter century and it's in excellent shape - thank you.) I told them I could come back later to pick it up if necessary; even offering to pay shipping if they didn't have time and needed to ship it back to me. The receptionist called someone to the desk, he took it to the back and emerged about 10 - 15 minutes later, pronouncing it to be in excellent condition. He'd visibly lubed the bearings and threw in a free bottle of liquid media. It didn't cost me a dime.
However, like most other gun-related manufacturers over the last year, RCBS has been absolutely hammered by consumer demand. It can be a bit of a chore, still, to get through to customer service on the phone. When you do, bear in mind that they still do a good job of working with you; but, they will be limited by the availability of parts/products. In other words, don't expect immediate assistance or an instantaneous ‘fix.' You may get it; just don't expect it. Also bear in mind that the warranty only applies to the original owner. (RCBS does have a reputation for working with all owners; but, once again, reasonable expectations and a friendly demeanor will go a long way.)
Replacement parts are listed by number in my instruction sheet. However, remember that sheet is over two decades old. The only ‘replacement part' currently listed on the RCBS website for the Sidewinder is the drum assembly - the drum and the two lids. I have yet to have the drum leak. Then again, while I can be ‘hard' on equipment, I remind you that I still have the original box for this tumbler and what kind of shape it's in after 23 years. But, I do see where a second drum would be advantageous when working with liquid media; e.g., one could be ‘cleaning' another group of brass while the other is flushing, etc. The company's 2009 paper catalog also suggests that: "Extra drums... are great for Moly coat application of bullets." That's not something I have done or intend to do; but, okay. The trouble is that the $100.95 MSRP on the extra drum assembly (right around the price of a good, vibratory cleaner) has kept me from getting too ambitious.
I think that becomes the bottom line. The Sidewinder is, arguably, one of, if not the, best case tumblers for reloading (as opposed to a rock tumbler that's pressed into usable/useful service). However, when the price is set against that of today's vibratory cleaners, it's a rather big and hard bullet to bite up front. Then again, I live in a part of the country which still (though to a disconcertingly lesser degree these days) operates on the principle that: "A man saddles his own horse and kills his own snakes."
On that basis, while, as I have admitted, I'd have to give it a long, hard think, if I had to choose a case cleaner to ‘ride,' I'd be hard pressed to line my sights up on anything ‘better' than the RCBS Sidewinder Case Tumbler.
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