[2021 Guide] Rimfire vs. Centerfire Ammunition

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fired rimfire and centerfire casings

Rimfire cartridges, centerfire cartridges—I bet you’ve heard and seen the names everywhere. Let’s cut to the chase.

Rimfire and centerfire are types of ammunition categories. They are given their names by how the firing pin ignites their primer compound.

The names are clearly a dead giveaway.

When using rimfire ammo, the firing pin strikes around the rim of the rimfire cartridge that ignites the primer compound in order to fire a round.

Centerfire bullets, on the other hand, are fired when the firing pin strikes the external primer which is at the center of the cartridge’s base.

Centerfire bullets exert a lot more pressure this way and are therefore more powerful than rimfire cartridges. However, don’t be mistaken—the .22LR rimfire is popular among both experts and novices, and it’s not fair to compare it to centerfires only by ballistic performance and power alone. Especially when different firearms are in question.

There’s a lot more to it than you think. We’ll get into more detail, and by the end of this article, you’ll know everything about rimfires and centerfires, their differences, what they have in common, as well as their pros & cons, and their main purposes.

Dissecting a Cartridge

Before we do anything, let’s see a diagram of a bullet. The standard round or cartridge is made of four parts: a bullet (projectile), propellant (powder), primer, and a cartridge case.

Dissection of bullet
A deconstructed 9mm round. Source: Wikimedia
  1. Bullet, or projectile;
  2. Cartridge casing that holds everything together;
  3. Propellant, or gunpowder;
  4. Rim, which provides the extractor on the firearm a place to grip the casing to remove it from the chamber once fired;
  5. Primer, once stricken, ignites the powder which propels the bullet via pressure.

Primers are the parts of the cartridge that initiate the gunpowder’s combustion, once stricken by the firing pin of the handgun or rifle. The immense pressure sends the bullet out of the cartridge and the gun.

Don’t mix up bullets with cartridges. The bullet is a projectile, while the cartridge contains it.

A Little Bit of History

Believe it or not, rimfire rounds precede centerfire rounds. Created in 1845 by a French gunsmith and inventor, Louis Nicolas Auguste Flobert, the rimfire type was supposed to be for gallery practice purposes and indoor shooting ranges.

The rimfire rounds had a percussion cap that was directly attached to the bullet on top. It had no propellant to drive the bullet and had really low muzzle velocity. The casing was fragile, and this is what made the cartridge work, but it also posed pressure and power problems.

salon pistol
Source: Wikimedia

Only in 1857 did some manufacturers implement black powder to up the ante on bullet pressure and velocities. Fast forward to 1887, the .22 LR was conceived, cementing a standard rimfire round for both hunting and target practice.

This design can be seen today on .22 BB (bullet breach) and .22 CB (conical breach) cap ammunition that still use this same design. Guess which round was that: the .22 Short for the Smith & Wesson revolvers of the Wild West era.

The Evolution of Cartridges

Today, it’s rare to see a larger rimfire cartridge than the .22, all thanks to smokeless powder cartridges of the late 19th century. As time passed, rimfire firearm calibers got bigger, with more powder to burn. The .38, .41 Short, and .58 calibers came up but were succeeded by centerfire rounds around the half of the 1800s.

The first “true” centerfire round was invented by another Frenchman, Clement Pottet.

They were refined from the first prototypes by other inventors like Hiram Berdan and Edward Mounier Boxer, the guys who invented the two centerfire design types that we’ll mention again below.

These rounds had their primer at the center of the base and are the ones that we still use today.

Centerfire rounds offered quicker reloading, better accuracy, and more power. This new cartridge quickly caught on and immediately changed the gun world of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Difference Between Rimfire & Centerfire

The main difference between centerfire and rimfire ammunition is in the primer’s location.

Centerfire rounds have their primers in the center (duh). The famous .308 Winchester round is a centerfire type, and this larger caliber is famous for hunting. You can check out some of our picks for .308 Winchester rifles for 2021 here.

Rimfire rounds are typically smaller, like the common one, the .22 Long Range round, and they have no visible primer.

youtube comment don't confuse the 7.62
This might answer somebody’s question. Source: Youtube

The rimfire and centerfire ammo types are manufactured differently with each model and cartridge. We won’t be covering each and every single cartridge on the market, but I’ll show you some common examples.

fired rimfire and centerfire casings
Source: Wikimedia

Take a good look at these fired rounds here. Can you spot the differences between this .22 Remington and the .45 ACP Federal?

The stricken center of the .45 Federal centerfire cartridge is visible and obvious, but notice the indentation on the rimfire cartridge on the left.

The firing pin strikes the edge of the rim and this creates the ignition blast. It’s weird, but that’s how a rimfire round works. That’s the wonders of physics for you.

Common Rimfire Cartridges

Despite their prevalent reloading disadvantages, there are a handful of interesting rimfire cartridges that are still viable. These low recoil models are available from .17 to .22 calibers and are perfect for new shooters.

Most of today’s rimfire cartridges are very hard to come by, but there’s one rimfire cartridge that withstood the test of time: the .22 LR (long rifle) standard. It’s one of the most popular smaller rounds in the world. It’s practically everywhere and is commonly used for plinking, varmint hunting, and target practice. They’re rimfire, so expect some duds in your ammo boxes. However, that’s negligible, and I’ve never heard of .22 duds damaging anyone’s rifle.

Other commonly known rimfires include the .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (.22 WMR), the .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire (.17 HMR) that’s great for varmint hunting, and the very rare .22 Short for revolvers.

You also have your .17 Winchester Super Magnum (WSM), .22 Winchester automatic, and the 5mm Remington Rimfire Magnum or 5mm RFM, which was once discontinued, and I’ll never understand why. They reintroduced it in 2008, but given its popularity at the time, it’s a mystery why they took it off the market in the first place.

If you’re interested in some good .22 plinking handguns, check out our picks for the best .22 handguns of 2021.

Pros & Cons of Rimfire Ammo

Pros
  • Lower pressure and recoil than centerfire ammunition
  • Cost-effective and available
  • Less noisy than centerfire (which is great for bird hunting)
  • Great for varmint hunting, target practice, and somewhat effective for self-defense
Cons
  • Not safe to reload (the casing is deformed after being shot)
  • 1-2% chance of duds
  • Impractical at longer ranges (~200 yards)
  • Not viable for home defense or medium/big game hunting
  • Limited to a smaller caliber

Common Centerfire Cartridges

Centerfire cartridges are today’s standard. Every gun uses them, big game hunters use nothing else but centerfire, and the military and police rely on them. Simply put, they’re your everyday bullet, but let’s go with the common ones for the sake of uniformity.

Popular centerfire cartridges include 9mm, .38, and the .45 ACP, which are the classic handgun calibers. These calibers have the size, pressure stats, and ballistic characteristics that are most suitable for pistols.

There’s the go-to AR-15 rifle ammo for the US Military and NATO—the popular .223 Remington / 5.56mm NATO that you can almost always find at any gun shop. Then you have the 7.62x39mm caliber, which is for the AK-47 rifles. For hunter’s calibers, there’s no deer or big game hunting without the .308 Winchester, the 6.5 Creedmoor, .338 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, the .30-06 Springfield, etc. 

And speaking of taking it too far, you have the almighty centerfire .50 BMG caliber, which is more suited for AMR (anti-material rifles) than for anti-personnel. As you’ve probably realized, it’s a centerfire cartridge world.

One of the most efficient hunting calibers is the 6.5 Creedmoor. Check out our list of the best 6.5 Creedmoor rifles for 2021.

Pros & Cons of Centerfire Ammunition

Pros
  • Standard for self-defense, home defense, hunting, and law enforcement/military
  • Higher pressure, power, velocity, and accuracy
  • Great for long distances
  • Excellent reliability
  • Easily reloadable for handloading
  • Available in small, medium, and large calibers
Cons
  • More expensive than rimfire ammo
  • Not ideal for small game hunting
  • Higher recoil

The Ignition Systems of Different Centerfire Rounds

There are two different types of centerfire ignition systems; the Boxer primer, and Berdan primer. Unless you’re a handloader, skip this part.

Boxer primers have a single flash hole that’s large, while Berdan Primers have two or three smaller flash holes at their base.

berdan vs boxer
Centerfire Berdan primer on the left, Boxer on the right. Source: Wikimedia

The main thing to remember is that Boxer rounds are significantly easier to reload than Berdan. So, if you want to reuse the casings with handloading, go for the Boxer types.

Berdan-primed cartridges are more difficult for handloading than Boxer, but it’s still possible with a little more effort. This is the ultimate way to save up on ammo cost, seeing how difficult it is to come across ammo during this day and age.

Both of them do their job, but there’s a slight difference as the two different flash hole designs spark differently, opening a window of opportunity for those of you who like to create and modify their own ammo with various pressure powers and dynamics.

centerfire rimfire ignition
Source: Wikimedia

Here are the main advantages and disadvantages of centerfire ammo.

FAQs

What Are Rimfire and Centerfire Cartridges?

The two main types of primer-ignited cartridges. Primer ignited cartridges work in a way that when the firing pin strikes the primer, the propellant drives the bullet forward.

Centerfire rounds have a primer in the center, while the cheaper, low-pressure rimfire ammo has the primer in the rim of the cartridge. Thus, centerfire rounds are more viable for handloading than rimfire because the casing remains undented.

Which Is Better: Rimfire or Centerfire Ammo?

Since centerfire ammo has a higher pressure, durability, and velocity, there’s a handful of valid reasons why use centerfire over rimfire rounds. It exerts more recoil than rimfire, and it may be somewhat less manageable for some.

Centerfire is more flexible and reliable for hunting and self-defense, but rimfire ammo is cheaper and more suitable for plinking and target practice, and sometimes even self-defense. A .22 LR is good enough to stop a potential assailant in their tracks.

Ultimately, with centerfire, you’ll pay a higher price but will definitely end up with a more reliable bullet than rimfire as rimfire duds are more common. 

Is Centerfire More Powerful Than Rimfire?

Yes. Centerfire rounds have more power and velocity, and in turn, more accuracy with their ignition system.

They are usually bigger calibers, in contrast to the rimfire rounds that have a thinner casing and smaller caliber rounds.

Why Is Rimfire Cheaper Than Centerfire?

Rimfire is cheaper than centerfire rounds because of how they’re smaller, and the brass casings are thinner, so this is a manufacturing no-brainer.

You can find .22 LR rounds for less than 10 cents apiece, in contrast to .223 Remington cartridges that can go up to 40 cents apiece.

Check out our review of the Ruger SR22, a great and cost-effective handgun in the .22 LR caliber.

Why Is the Rimfire Cartridge Smaller Than the Centerfire Cartridge?

Rimfire cases are smaller because, historically speaking, they have retained their original form for plinking and target practice, especially the .22 LR.

They blow up easily because of their thin brass casings, but that’s the thing, they’re simply made that way in order to exert maximum efficiency for varmint hunting and plinking.

The design has gone through improvements throughout the ages, but the .22 Long Range has retained its former glory. This is a regular case of “don’t fix it if it ain’t broken,” I guess.

Conclusion

As much as centerfire is the God-given ammunition standard, please don’t underestimate the power of rimfire. I personally think that rimfire is the ultimate go-to ammo if you’re a beginner looking to hone their skills and accuracy at your local shooting range.

Rimfire ammo is super cheap and the recoil is manageable for anyone. Besides, .22LR is a viable option for hunting vermin and self-defense, though it’s rare to see .22 Short, .22 Magnum, and .17 HMR, at least in my case.

In this day and age of economic and sociopolitical crises, you’d have a hard time looking for decent .308 Winchester ammo for your deer hunting sessions. Why waste good centerfire ammo on practice sessions anyway?

Be it as it may, I would still stick to centerfire rounds like the hollow point 9mm, .38, and the dreaded .223 Remington/5.56 NATO for self-defense and hunting deer, moose, or elk for that matter. The reliability, power, accuracy, and reload potential are unmatched in centerfire rounds.

Still, we must give credit to the legendary rimfire ammunition that gave way to centerfire rounds we consistently use today.

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Author

Brady

Hi there, I'm Brady and I'm the owner of GunMade.com. I have been an avid gun enthusiast and hunter since I moved to the Midwest over 15 years ago. It's my passion to share my knowledge and expertise to help you find the best guns in your price range.

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