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Rimfire Vs Centerfire [Beginner’s Guide]

THE PRACTICAL & TECHNICAL LOOK AT RIMFIRE VS CENTERFIRE AMMO

The vast majority of ammunition falls into two main categories these days: rimfire and centerfire. But if you’re new to firearms, you may be curious about the difference. Hell, even if you’re more experienced, sometimes things fall through the cracks.

To help you out, we’re going to talk about these two types of ammunition. We’ll go over the history and parts of each, what each is used for, and the major differences between the two. 

HISTORY OF CENTERFIRE

Centerfire is the slightly older of these two ammo types, with Jean Samual Pauly developing an early version somewhere between 1808 and 1812. Pauly’s version, however, didn’t have a percussion cap.

For a round more similar to the modern version, percussion cap included, we look to Clement Pottet, who is generally considered the inventor of centerfire ammunition. He first developed the centerfire round in 1829 but continued to work on the design through 1855.

Clement Pottet cartridge design
Clement Pottet cartridge design

These days, most common rounds, like 9mm, .45ACP, .223/5.56, and .308 are centerfire. 

HISTORY OF RIMFIRE

Rimfire ammunition didn’t come that much later, though. It was first invented by Louis-Nicolas Flobert in 1845. Flobert’s initial cartridge was 6mm and powderless, using only the percussion cap for propellant. He also debuted a similar cartridge in 1888. So similar, in fact, that these days, both are called 6mm Flobert and considered functionally the same cartridge.

Louis-Nicolas Flobert
Louis-Nicolas Flobert

These rounds were pretty weak, with muzzle velocities of only about 700 to 800 ft/s. That makes sense for what they were designed for, though. 

These rounds were intended to be paired with Flobert’s “parlor guns.” Parlor guns were pistols and rifles designed for use in shooting rooms within the home. 

As for the best-known modern rimfire round, .22 Long Rifle was introduced in 1887 by J. Stevens Arms & Tool Company, though a handful of other rimfire rounds came between 6mm Flobert and .22LR. 

THE PARTS OF A ROUND

Both centerfire and rimfire ammunition have the same basic collection of parts: a bullet, a casing, powder, and a primer. And for those who are primarily familiar with the layman’s use of “bullet” to mean the whole round, in this context, we’re using “bullet” in its literal definition to refer specifically to the projectile. 

They’re even mostly in the same configuration. Bullet in the front of the casing, powder inside, and primer at the rear. The primer is where we get the distinction between centerfire and rimfire ammunition. 

Centerfire ammo has a small primer in the center of the rear of the cartridge. The cartridge is thicker there, and the primer is set into the metal of the case.  The primer is completely open on the cartridge's outside, making it visible when looking at the round. 

Other than that, however, there’s only a small gap open on the opposite side of the primer, which allows the primer to ignite the powder. When you fire your gun, the firing pin strikes that central primer to fire the gun. Hence, centerfire.

Rimfire, on the other hand, is a little different. Unlike centerfire ammo, the case of rimfire ammo is thin across its entire surface. That means the rim of the cartridge is actually hollow. Well, it would be if it weren’t for the primer, which stretches across the entirety of the bottom of the round, completely hidden inside the casing. To activate the primer, the firing pin hits the rim of the casing. Hence, rimfire. 

Pretty simple, right?

So let’s move on to the part you probably care a lot more about: what each type of ammunition is good for. 

WHAT IS CENTERFIRE AMMO USED FOR?

Today, centerfire ammunition is typically used in higher-pressure rounds that are used for long-range shooting, big game hunting, self-defense, or serious target shooting. 

Overall, centerfire ammo tends to be more expensive and a little bit more reliable, but there are certainly some match-grade rimfire rounds out there for more precise shooting and reliable function. This is your 9mm, .308 Winchester, 5.56/.223 ammo, and others like them.

Left to right .300BLK, 6mm ARC, 7.62x39, 6.8 SPC II, and 5.56mm
Left to right .300BLK, 6mm ARC, 7.62×39, 6.8 SPC II, and 5.56mm

If you’re hunting anything larger than a rabbit or carrying for self-defense purposes, you’re most likely using a centerfire round. The exception would be if you’re specifically looking for something like .22 LR for someone with reduced hand strength. 

The humble .22LR may not be the ideal self-defense round, but it certainly beats strong language in a pinch. 

That said, the thicker cartridge walls and higher potential pressures of a modern centerfire round make it much better in pretty much any situation where you want more oomph. That means bigger, faster bullets and generally better overall performance are the centerfire domain. 

The downside is that centerfire ammo is heavier and more expensive, just based on simple economics and physics. There’s more of the same material (brass), so it costs more and weighs more. 

The cost is what it is, and we can’t do anything about it really. You get what you pay for in the end in terms of performance. The weight does give rimfire a few key advantages we’ll cover in the next section though. 

The final thing to consider is that centerfire ammo can be reloaded while rimfire ammo can’t. This may not matter if you only shoot factory ammo, but it’s understandably a huge deal for those who like to roll their own and handload ammo themselves.

Note on each case with permanent marker what the powder charge is to make organization easier.

Reloading can be a great way to get more bang for your buck (literally) so this is something to consider when you’re thinking about just how much cheaper rimfire ammo is. Still, you won’t really save money by reloading, but you will get to shoot more for the same amount. 

You can’t really buy reloading components in anything but bulk quantities, and like shopping at Sam’s Club or Costco, you might get more for your money, but you will end up with a bigger overall bill too.  

WHAT IS RIMFIRE AMMO USED FOR?

Rimfire ammo tends to be used in lower-pressure applications like target, plinking, and varmint hunting. This is your .22LRs, .22 WMRs, and .17 HMRs. Small, light, low-pressure rounds that don’t have to penetrate deeply or travel terribly far. 

That doesn’t make them inferior to centerfire in any way, though. Far from it, actually. Rimfire rounds are still extremely popular, and the .22LR might be the most popular round on the planet. 

vudoo gun works v-22m live
Vudoo Gun Works V-22M in .22 WMR

The much-beloved .22LR is used in the Olympics and is available just about everywhere on the planet as the go-to target round for all types of shooters. It’s also more than sufficient for taking down small game like rabbits or squirrels and is great for dispatching other small pests as well.

The near-universal availability of the round also means you can find all kinds of target competitions, from various handgun competitions, to benchrest, to steel challenge, to “long-range” precision matches that stretch the humble rimfire to its absolute limits.

Its cheap nature also means you can buy it in bulk and store it for the next small-game season, your next target match, or something even more exciting…like the end of the world. 

This is the most popular type of ammo with preppers because you can get 500 rounds for $40 or so, and more like $25-$30 when ammo prices calm down. You can also easily carry hundreds of rounds in a pocket or thousands in a backpack. 

If you’re looking for cheap ammo that you can shoot all day without needing to take out a loan, then rimfire ammo is a great option, especially .22LR given the fact that you can buy it anywhere ammo is sold. 

Unfortunately, rimfire ammo can’t be reloaded and is a little less reliable to boot. The cheaper it is, the more issues you’ll have. If you’re willing to buy match-grade fancy rimfire, you’ll pay 30+ cents per round but have nearly flawless ammo. 

This isn’t due to any laziness on any manufacturer’s part, it’s just a fact of life when it comes to the way rimfire ammo is made. The way the primer material is distributed throughout the cartridge's rim is just a little bit inconsistent at times, leading to faulty primers. 

Not the end of the world, but something to be aware of. I generally expect around 2% of my ammo to just not want to fire. With centerfire ammo, you will hardly ever see any kind of primer issues from a reputable manufacturer. 

Still, rimfire ammo is a great choice for fun, cost-effective shooting, it’s great for training shooters of all ages and skill levels, and it’s available wherever ammo is sold. 

RIMFIRE VS CENTERFIRE

Ultimately, whether you should go for rimfire or centerfire ammo depends on what you plan to do with it. 

I like plinking with rimfire because it’s fun and easy to shoot, and it’s easier on the ears and cheap to buy. Centerfire is the better ammo for the job for defense or long-range shooting. Others like using centerfire for everything, while some people enjoy rimfire competitions like NRL22. 

NRL22 competition ranges from coast to coast. Here’s a scene from the 2019 NRL22 national championship match held at Desert Sportsman Rifle and Pistol in Las Vegas. Photo: CONX Media

Ultimately, it’s up to you.

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