Virtually all ammunition available on store shelves today is either rimfire or centerfire. The differences between the two are significant, but if you are unfamiliar with ammo terminology, it may not be immediately apparent what each term means.
Knowing how to differentiate rim fire vs. center fire cartridges is essential for any gun owner. Learn about rimfire and centerfire ammunition and know how to tell which type a given cartridge is, how each type functions, and whether one is better than the other.
Basics of Metallic Cartridges
Centerfire and rimfire ammunition are two different types of metallic cartridges for firearms. Metallic cartridges first appeared in the early 19th century, replacing the traditional flintlocks, matchlocks, percussion caps, and paper cartridges.
All metallic cartridges function on the same superficial principle: A firing pin hits an impact-sensitive primer in the back of a metallic case, creating sparks and igniting the gunpowder inside the case. The pressure generated by ignited powder propels the projectile (typically, a bullet) down the barrel, causing the gun to fire.
The primary differences between each type are the cartridge’s construction and the method employed to spark the primer. The first practical type of metallic cartridge was the pinfire cartridge, invented by French gun inventor Casimir Lefaucheux in 1836.
Although many more cartridge types were invented (cup-fire, lip-fire, teat-fire), all but two fell into obsolescence: Rimfire and centerfire.
How Rimfire Ammunition Works
The rimfire cartridge is the oldest of the two surviving types. Invented by another French gunsmith, Louis-Nicolas Flobert, the first rimfire cartridges appeared in 1845.
Rimfire cartridges are visually distinctive: They feature a protruding rim at the base and no externally-visible primer element. Instead, the inside of this rim is hollow and contains a charge of priming compound, sitting directly underneath the gunpowder.
The exact composition of a rimfire cartridge’s primer compound may vary. Each manufacturer typically has its own proprietary recipe, but most contain lead styphnate and several other chemicals such as tetrazene and barium nitrate.
In rimfire firearms, the firing pin is designed to strike the side of the rim instead of the center, crushing the brass where it impacts and leaving an indentation near the edge. In doing so, the priming compound inside sparks, igniting the cartridge and firing the projectile.
Advantages of rimfire ammunition
Rimfire ammunition is inexpensive to produce, and the sticker price is usually low. Under normal conditions, the cost per round of a typical mass-produced rimfire cartridge rarely exceeds $0.10. It is possible to purchase thousands of rounds of rimfire ammunition like the .22 Long Rifle for a comparatively low price.
Compared to centerfire ammunition, rimfire cartridges are generally low-powered, which carries multiple benefits for the shooter: Less recoil, noise, and muzzle flash.
Disadvantages of rimfire ammunition
The primary disadvantages of a rimfire cartridge are in its construction. When comparing the malfunction rate between centerfire vs. rimfire ammunition, the latter typically has a higher rate of failures to fire. The most common cause is failure to ignite the priming compound.
The ignition process of a rimfire cartridge requires the firing pin to strike and crush the rim at the base of a casing, so the brass has to be sufficiently soft and malleable.
However, soft cases are weaker and unable to handle higher pressure levels. Consequently, rimfire ammunition has limitations: Less power and effective range and reduced terminal effectiveness.
6mm Flobert (.22 BB cap)
.22 Long Rifle
How Centerfire Ammunition Works
Although early forms of centerfire ammunition were attempted in the early 19th century by multiple European gunsmiths, the current design was invented in 1829 by French inventor Clément Pottet and finalized in 1855.
Centerfire ammunition uses a separate primer inserted into the center of the casing base, giving this cartridge type its name. Centerfire primers come in various sizes, each containing a standardized charge of priming compound, each suited for different applications, for example, the Small Pistol, Large Pistol, Small Rifle, and Large Rifle.
Firearms chambered for centerfire ammunition do not require particular firing pin designs. They only need to be aligned with the center of the case to strike the primer, igniting the gunpowder, and firing the projectile.
There are two subtypes of centerfire ammunition: Berdan-primed and Boxer-primed. The difference is the location of the anvil, an element that facilitates the ignition of the priming compound.
In Berdan-primed ammunition, the anvil is part of the casing.
In Boxer-primed ammunition, the anvil is part of the primer.
Advantages of centerfire ammunition
Using a separate primer element allows for longer, larger cases with higher wall thicknesses. Not only did this design improve reliability and safety (thicker walls are less brittle), but it also allowed ammunition manufacturers to push the limits and create more powerful cartridges. Virtually all of the world’s most practical ammunition today is centerfire.
Boxer-primed ammunition uses interchangeable primers with integrated anvils, making it possible to reload the casings with relatively simple tools. If the case is in good condition, you can replace the primer, refill it with gunpowder, and install a new projectile, creating a new cartridge.
Berdan-primed ammunition is typically less expensive to produce and produced in bulk, making them cheaper on average.
Disadvantages of centerfire ammunition
The main point of comparison between rimfire vs. centerfire is pricing. Centerfire ammunition is usually more expensive, with a higher cost per round.
There are few disadvantages to quality Boxer-primed ammunition, other than the scarce possibility of a misaligned or misshapen primer. However, quality has a price, and Boxer-primed centerfire ammunition is the most expensive to produce, translating into a few extra cents per round.
While Berdan-primed ammo is cheaper and less expensive to produce, it is also considered non-reloadable by most shooters and enthusiasts. Although technically possible, compatible primers are far rarer and more challenging to obtain cartridges, and most casings are not designed to be fired more than once.
Centerfire vs Rimfire: Which is Better?
The short answer is that it depends on your needs. Most shooters own firearms capable of firing both.
If you’re looking for inexpensive, low-powered ammunition suitable for training,
Plinking, and short-distance target shooting, you are most likely shopping for rimfire ammunition.
If you need practical ammunition for self-defense, combat, hunting, target shooting at any distance, or if you enjoy handloading and reloading your own cartridges, you will likely prefer centerfire.
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