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If you’re new to firearms and ammunition, you may be wondering what defines a centerfire pistol. Ammunition manufacturers produce dozens of different pistol cartridges. Some are more suitable for some purposes than others, and one of the factors determining suitability is the ignition system.
So what is a centerfire pistol? A centerfire pistol fires centerfire ammunition. Centerfire refers to the design and location of the primer in relation to the cartridge case head. The primer is essential to powder combustion.
Common examples of centerfire pistol and revolver cartridges include the .38 Special and .380 ACP, 9×19mm Luger, .357 Magnum, and .45 ACP.
The most common rimfire cartridges include the .22 Long Rifle (LR), .22 Winchester Magnum Rimfire (WMR), .17 Hornady Magnum Rimfire (HMR), and .17 Hornady Mach 2 (HM2).
Centerfire and Rimfire
Metallic cartridge ammunition comprises four basic components: the bullet, powder, primer, and case.
When you squeeze the trigger, you release a cocked striker or hammer. The firing pin or striker, driven forward by a hammer blow or spring tension, impacts the primer. The primer, which contains an impact-sensitive primary explosive, detonates—the detonation projects burning particles into the cartridge case body, igniting the propellant charge. As the propellant burns, it produces high-pressure expanding gases that drive the bullet through the barrel, propelling it toward the target.
In centerfire ammunition, the primer is a separate and consumable component located in the center of the cartridge case head. The handloader or factory seats the primer in a cavity called the primer pocket. When the firing pin strikes the primer, it crushes the priming material against a self-contained anvil. The resulting incandescent particles are sent through the flash hole to ignite the gunpowder.
In rimfire ammunition, the priming material is located inside the rim (extractor flange). When the firing pin strikes the rim, it deforms the case against the priming material, detonating it. As deformation of the case is necessary to fire the cartridge, the case material must be thin enough to accommodate this action.
Rimfire ammunition is not generally considered reusable. When you fire a rimfire cartridge, the firing pin crushes the priming material against the rim’s inside surface, acting as the anvil. This permanently deforms the case rim. While you can technically reload rimfire cartridges, it’s a more involved process.
Centerfire ammunition, however, uses a separate component. When the primer is crushed and detonated, you can simply remove the spent primer using a dedicated depriming tool and replace it. The primer pocket remains intact and can accommodate a new primer, allowing you to reload the cartridge.
Fortunately, rimfire ammunition is also often less expensive than centerfire cartridges in the same class. As a result, for the hobbyist or dedicated handloader, the centerfire cartridge is the default choice.
One of the most crucial differences between centerfire and rimfire ammunition is reliability, especially in self-defense. Rimfire ammunition is generally less reliable in its ignition than centerfire. This is one of the reasons that official sidearms and self-defense weapons are typically chambered in centerfire cartridges.
Assuming equivalent quality-control standards during the manufacturing process, the centerfire cartridge will ignite and fire more consistently on average.
There are no design limitations in a centerfire cartridge regarding the thickness of the case head or rim. The only component the firing pin strikes is a disposal cup in the center. As a result, centerfire handgun cartridges can withstand considerably higher chamber pressures than are considered safe for rimfire handguns.
Rimfire cartridges must have rims that are not too thick to resist a firing pin’s impact, which must detonate the priming material. This detonation further weakens the structural integrity of the cartridge case.
Most rimfire cartridges in use today are relatively low caliber — typically .17 to .22 — and less powerful than their centerfire counterparts can be. In the 19th century, many medium- and big-bore revolver and rifle cartridges were rimfire but used low-pressure blackpowder. Today, large-caliber handgun cartridges are universally centerfire because the cartridge case brass can be thicker.
Dry firing is the act of squeezing the trigger and releasing a cocked hammer or striker on an empty chamber. Shooters do this for a number of reasons, from snapping for practice to decocking the weapon for storage/disassembly.
Many gun owners dry-fire their pistols to familiarize themselves with the trigger action and cultivate trigger control without the expense of live ammunition and range fees. However, in rimfire rifles and pistols, dry firing can potentially damage the firing pin and barrel.
In centerfire weapons, with some exceptions, dry firing is perfectly safe — the firing pin/striker protrudes through the face of the slide/bolt into an empty chamber.
NOTE: Some centerfire pistols with brittle firing pins, such as the CZ 52, may incur damage from dry firing.
Because the primer is located in a centerfire cartridge center, primer detonation is more likely to cause uniform powder combustion.
Rimfire ammunition is generally less expensive to manufacture and, thus, less costly to buy. This, coupled with the lower recoil and report of rimfire cartridges, is one reason for its popularity for training.
If you want to introduce a novice to shooting or engage in familiarization firing, .22 LR can help you master or maintain marksmanship fundamentals without the cost, muzzle blast, or recoil. Many firearms manufacturers produce rimfire variants of centerfire weapons — e.g., Glock 44, Smith & Wesson M&P15-22 — for this reason, among others.
By understanding some of the differences between rimfire and centerfire ammunition, you can confidently answer the question, “What is a centerfire pistol?” and choose the cartridge and firearm combination that is most optimal for the task at hand.
You should still practice with the cartridge you intend to carry or keep for personal defense or service. A rimfire variant will not replicate the recoil or report — factors you need to account for.
If you need a pistol for self-defense or want to take up reloading, centerfire is the optimal choice. That’s why most pistols used for personal protection are centerfire. Rimfire pistols tend to be cheap and are suitable for recreational target shooting, hunting varmints, and pest control.
The Last Word
Centerfire and rimfire pistols both have their place in a gun owner’s battery. But they often serve different purposes. While some choose rimfire pocket pistols for self-defense, more reliable and powerful centerfire options are available.