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When it comes to selecting a new firearm, especially for a first-time gun owner, the difference between centerfire vs. rimfire is a key question to answer.
Centerfire ammunition has been around since the early 1800s, while the first rimfire cartridge was invented back in 1845. Over two hundred years later, both still represent the two most common cartridge types available today. That’s why so many manufacturers are still developing new centerfire and rimfire options even in 2023. So let’s dig into them
Let’s start with the one common bond shared between the two. Every cartridge, whether it’s built for a handgun, rifle, or shotgun, has four basic parts: a case, primer, powder, and bullet. Rimfire and centerfire ammunition are both primer-ignited cartridges.
When you pull the trigger of a gun, the firing pin strikes the primer causing it to explode. This, in turn, ignites the gun powder which forces the bullet down the barrel. The difference between the two types is where that primer is located.
A rimfire cartridge, as the name implies, has the primer contained in the actual rim of the ammunition casing. When fired, the gun’s firing pin strikes and crushes the rim against the edge of the barrel breech. This sparks the primer compound within the rim and ignites the gunpowder.
Centerfire ammunition, on the other hand, has the primer located at the center of the casing’s base. The primer is typically seated into a separate recessed section and, just like rimfire, ignites the gunpowder when hit by the firing pin. Below you’ll see the broad comparison between rimfire and centerfire ammunition.
A Closer Look At The Differences
As the name implies, centerfire cartridges have a small primer located in the center part of the casing. The primer contains something called the priming compound, which is a chemical mixture that creates heat and gas when struck by the gun’s firing pin. That heat and gas, in turn, propels the bullet down the barrel.
A centerfire cartridge is significantly larger than its rimfire counterpart. They are thicker, too, which allows them to be loaded at much higher pressures.
Rimfire rounds, on the other hand, are wildly different. The priming compound is located within the hollow rim protruding from the base of the case.
That’s why rimfire ammunition is much smaller in relation to centerfire rounds. Rimfire cartridges are limited to low pressures because the case must be thin enough that the firing pin can crush the rim and ignite the primer.
Also Read: 7 Best Hand Priming Tools
There are different types of primers for different firearms, including pistol primers, rifle primers, and shotgun primers. For centerfire pistols and rifles, cartridges contain either Boxer or Berdan primers.
Boxer primers (the most popular primer style in America) have a self-contained anvil within the primer. When the firing pin strikes the base of the primer cup, it causes the priming compound to be crushed against a self-contained anvil. This creates a flash that ignites the gunpowder and sends the bullet forward. Berdan primers have an anvil that is integral to the primer pocket. Due to the design of the case, Berdan-primed ammo cannot be reloaded. One other point? Berdan primers are often used in surplus ammunition made outside the United States. While it’s cheaper to produce, manufacturers often use corrosive priming compounds that require you to properly clean your firearm often.
Also Read: Hollow Point vs FMJ
While they follow the same basic physics of a centerfire cartridge, rimfires react a little differently. The primer comes in the form of a wet, green, almost clay-like substance. A small pellet of the primer is dropped into a case and spun around so it’s evenly spread across the bottom.
When the trigger is pulled, the firing pin crushes the rim causing the primer to ignite.
Because rimfire ammunition is limited to low-pressure loads and the case is deformed after firing, you can’t reload them for future use (unlike centerfire cartridges).
Centerfire cartridges are, by far, the most versatile type available. They often carry heavier projectiles which allows for a more accurate shot at longer distances. That makes them perfect for self-defense, hunting or long-range competition shooting.
They’re also extremely reliable. Because the primer mechanism used in the cartridge is normally softer than the cartridge case, there’s a smoother transfer of kinetic energy from the firing pin to the primer.
Those longer distances? That happens because rounds can be loaded at much higher pressures which translates to a much greater range.
Not to be outdone, rimfire ammunition serves a number of equally important uses. Due to its extremely light recoil, it’s the perfect cartridge for beginning shooters to learn with. They can focus more on marksmanship instead of worrying about recoil management. The cartridge usually generates far less noise than any centerfire, so it’s not a scary situation for new shooters, either.
Yes, rimfire is actually a great cartridge for hunting small game. The .22LR round in particular is surprisingly accurate and can easily dispatch squirrels, prairie dogs, or rabbits with ease.
But arguably the best thing about a rimfire round is the endless joy it brings when plinking—an informal form of target shooting for pleasure. Millions of tin cans, logs, bottles, milk jugs and other targets have met their demise at the hands of a rimfire firearm.
“Popularity” means many different things to many different people. Most searched by Google? Most purchased online? Best for a handgun, the AR platform or a bolt-action rifle? It all depends on what you’re interested in. But in general, here’s what tops the list for 2023.
As for handguns, .380 ACP, .38 Special, .40 S&W and .45 ACP are all extremely popular calibers. But the 9mm round continues to dominate the top spot as the most popular handgun caliber in the world.
For rifles, the most popular centerfire cartridges include the .223 Remington, .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester and .30-06 Springfield. Over the past 15 years, the 6.5 Creedmoor has gained a very loyal following, too.
Not only is the .22 Long Rifle (.22LR) the most popular rimfire cartridge of all time, but it’s also the most popular cartridge among centerfire cartridge sales, too. For all the reasons discussed earlier.
Then there’s the venerable .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire (.17 HMR). Designed to be a rimfire with an exceptionally flat trajectory, this cartridge is ideal for varmint hunting out to 200 yards. That’s right—it’s a .172 inch bullet diameter that will drop a prairie dog or slap a steel target at 600 feet.
Additional rimfire options include the 5mm Remington Rimfire Magnum, .25 Stevens and.267 Remington.
Which is Better, Rimfire or Centerfire?
The short answer? It depends entirely on you.
Interested in a cartridge for concealed carry, home defense, hunting big game or long-range target shooting? You’ll want to narrow down your choices to a centerfire cartridge. Better bullet velocity, better accuracy on long-distance targets and you’ll have a much bigger choice of calibers. You’ll also be able to reload your own ammunition later if that’s something you’re interested in doing.
Looking to purchase your first firearm or sit around the campfire plinking old cans? You can’t go wrong with a rimfire handgun or rifle. Less recoil and easy to handle with a low noise level. It’s also the perfect cartridge for small game hunting and the ammunition is much more affordable.
Regardless of which cartridge type you choose, shoot it often and shoot it safely.