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Beware Berdan

A look down into a Berdan-primed 9mm Parabellum case.

A look down into a Berdan-primed 9mm Parabellum case.

By Rob Behr

There are places that will sell you brass by the bucket or by the barrel and they are a great deal high volume shooters…but you have to beware Berdan.

In the world of centerfire priming there are two common types, Boxer and Berdan.  The Boxer primers we are familiar with in the United States use a centralized flash hole which makes them a friend to handloaders.  De-priming is simple.  So simple in fact that a handloader can get into a brainless routine of pulling a lever and replacing the de-primed brass with another one to be sized and de-primed — repeating this process until they run out of brass or their bladder explodes.  A Berdan primed case can really snap a handloader out of their Zen-State in hurry, along with ruining another de-capping pin.bentpins72

In order to understand the differences between Berdan and Boxer primers, a brief primer on primers is probably required.  The history of the two primer types are, not surprisingly, associated with the men who are credited with their invention.  Hiram Berdan was an American who first filed a patent on his system in March of 1866.  Click here to read the patent.   Berdan’s Patent

Colonel Edward Mounier Boxer of the Royal Arsenal received his English patent in June of 1866.  Ironically, the English army would become a proponent of the Berdan system, while Boxer primers became the rage in America.

Both systems use thin metal caps filled with a fulminate compound that is frictionally sensitive.  Mercury II fulminate was the standard for years, but has given way to other less corrosive and toxic compounds.  In both systems the thin metal cap, when struck, is crushed against an anvil inside the cartridge with sufficient force to detonate the priming compound.  It is the anvil that sets the systems apart.

berdan cut away72Berdan’s idea was to create an anvil that was part of the cartridge, a protrusion located in the center of the pocket that could be easily formed during the manufacturing process.  This necessitated flash holes that were offset.  Boxer primers are more complex, each one containing a small metal anvil.  They are more expensive to manufacture, but they do allow for a central flashhole and easy de-priming.

Drawing shows cut-away of Boxer primer with the arrow indicating the anvil.

Drawing shows cut-away of Boxer primer with the arrow indicating the anvil.

Because of the ease of manufacturing, and the reliability of the system itself, Berdan primers are very common everywhere but the United States.  There are American made Berdan primed cartridges, but this is typically done to emphasize that the cases are not to be reloaded.  CCI’s aluminum-hulled Blazer line is a great example.  Hornady’s line of steel cased .223 Remington ammunition is another.

With the large scale importation of European and Asian ammunition into the United States, Berdan primed brass has become much more common.   A couple of common sense measures can help keep broken de-capping pins to a minimum.

magnet72You should be doing this already, but take the time to check for steel rather than brass cases in your range brass.  Painted or lacquered cases are usually steel.  If in doubt a magnet will help.

Certain calibers are more likely to be Berdan rather than Boxer primed.  The 7.62X39 and 7.62X54R are high on this list.  But with the world-wide popularity of American combat cartridges like the .308 Winchester and .223 Remington also make them possible Berdan priming candidates.

Hornady's steel-cased line of ammunition is Berdan primed.

Hornady’s steel-cased line of ammunition is Berdan primed.

Ammunition from certain countries are more likely to be Berdan primed.  Russian and Chinese ammunition is always suspect, but ammunition that did not come from an American manufacturer should be inspected to confirm the priming type.  I got caught by some Brazilian CBC headstamped brass .308 cases a couple of years ago and lost two de-capping pins before I wised up and sorted out the other 18 from about 600 pieces of range brass.    The real solution here is to inspect, inspect, inspect.  It was nobody’s fault but mine.