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It's a common trope in first-person shooter video games for the stopping power of a firearm to be inversely proportional to its fire rate and/or magazine capacity. This is done for game balance, in a world in which pretty much anyone can choose freely between a handgun, a sniper rifle, and a squad machine gun as their personal weapon. In reality, it doesn't really work this way. Someone hit by a single 45ACP bullet shot by a Thompson Submachine Gun (Tommy Gun) will probably sustain at least as much tissue damage as someone hit with the same bullet fired from a 45 caliber handgun such as an M1911. The reason that slower-firing weapons are not obsolete in our world is due to practical aspects - a large, lumbering, high-capacity, fully automatic weapon costs more to make, maintain, and supply than a cheap handgun or a basic infantry rifle.

What differences in technology or environment would cause the video game trope to become true? That is, what would make armies intentionally choose to equip their soldiers with pistols, bolt-action rifles, and small-magazine automatics because they are tired of using up an entire belt of MG-42 ammo just to knock out a single enemy infantry soldier?

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  • $\begingroup$ Your question seems to be self-contradictory; you already know why real life doesn't work this way, so I don't understand what you are asking. Are you asking about super-soldiers rather than regular humans? $\endgroup$ – Matthew Oct 23 at 15:51
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew no, I'm asking what could be different about the world such that the trope would become true. I'm not asking about handwave-y "he is immune to machine gun fire but can be taken down by a single shot from a single-shot muzzle-loading flintlock rifle because reasons" mutation, but some sort of plausible physiological change that leads to some sort of interesting resistance could be in-scope. $\endgroup$ – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Oct 23 at 16:02
  • $\begingroup$ Slower-firing weapons are obsolete though. Standard US Army issue is the M4,capable of 700 rounds per minute. $\endgroup$ – Halfthawed Oct 23 at 16:07
  • $\begingroup$ @Halfthawed the Soviet PPSh-41 fired over a thousand rounds per minute, and was available all the way back in WW2. Why aren't US troops using it instead? $\endgroup$ – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Oct 23 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ You may want to think about rephrasing your question. The damage an individual bullet does is honestly pretty irrelevant to your actual question. High-ROF automatic weapons aren't used because it takes a lot of hits to put someone down, they're used because you have to fire a few thousand rounds in order for ONE bullet to actually hit someone. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Oct 23 at 16:17
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The current state of affairs is driven primarily by two factors:

First, ammunition is cheap, so there's no reason not to use as much as a soldier can carry.

Second: Modern armed combat is chaotic and hitting an enemy soldier is generally an exercise in statistics rather than skill.

Video games provide an astonishingly unrealistic perspective of what actual firefights are like. I'm having a hard time finding a primary source to link to, but in the 1950s the United States government did a study called Project Salvo that estimated that American soldiers in WW2 fired something like five to fifty thousand rounds for every enemy killed or wounded, depending on how it was counted. It was this experience that led to the gradual shift away from larger, heavier rounds that were standard for WW2 combat rifles to the smaller rounds like the .223 used by most modern military rifles. Lighter ammo = more rounds can be carried by the soldier = more combat effectiveness, or so it was thought.

That ratio of rounds fired to enemy casualties has stayed pretty constant ever since. Estimates from Vietnam all the way up to a GAO report that came out recently still indicate that soldiers are firing tens of thousands of rounds for every enemy killed.

In order for your scenario to be valid, you would need one or both of the following to be true:

A: The ratio of rounds fired per enemy killed would need to be MUCH lower.

B: The cost and/or weight of individual rounds of ammunition would need to be much higher.

A good example of how this might work would have been widespread adoption of the XM25. Instead of a rifle bullet, the XM25 was essentially a grenade launcher that used a laser rangefinder to detonate the rounds in midair, allowing the user to hit enemies that were behind cover or inside buildings and so forth. If you paired this with a really effective sensor system that ensured you could see exactly where your enemies were, and hit them regardless of cover, then you would have a condition where the number of rounds required per enemy casualty would be a single digit number instead of a five-digit one, and the cost and weight of the ammunition would ensure that your soldiers would only be carrying a couple dozen rounds instead of hundreds like they do now.

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    $\begingroup$ "Video games provide an astonishingly unrealistic perspective of what actual firefights are like." Yup. In real life, pretty much any weapon you are going to bother to use is going to MK an opponent in one hit. If it hits, of course. I think your best argument is going to be that a pistol or BAR has a much higher chance to hit, as they are both inherently accurate, and you are using them for carefully aimed rounds as opposed to suppressive fire. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Oct 23 at 17:54
  • $\begingroup$ OTOH, there's a scene in SG1 where Sam uses a P90 in single-shot mode to shoot through a moving rope. (On her first attempt, naturally.) High potential rate of fire doesn't necessarily mean "inaccurate". (Accuracy is why soldiers are trained to shoot in short bursts.) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Oct 23 at 17:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Matthew Yes, but that doesn't really matter at the end of the day. Armies use high ROF weapons because of statistics. When the M16 was introduced, it replaced a weapon with MUCH better stopping power and accuracy, and the decision was those capabilities weren't as important as fire volume. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Oct 23 at 18:06
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One answer could be: Smart/Specialized ammo

The military is already on the cusp of highly advanced personal munitions, including "smart rounds" which are capable of limited self-guiding. In the hypothetical future, these rounds could not only be self-guiding but also carry specialized payloads such as the ability to airburst near targets or be re-targeted mid flight.

If such advanced bullets (or basically miniaturized missiles) existed, they'd doubtlessly be expensive. Each soldier might be allotted a handgun with 10 smart-bullets to be used at their discretion. Since the bullets would be self-aiming and/or self-propelled, they wouldn't need a particularly accurate shooter or long barrel. A good "smart bullet" would also basically guarantee a hit as they'd be able to target specified weak spots.

Having weapons that don't rapid-fire would incite soldiers to make their "smart bullets" count. Rapid firing smart-bullets would be prohibitively expensive too, especially if most bullets miss their targets (due to lack of targets out of cover). Also, if smart bullets are in play, suppressing fire is essentially useless. As soon as the opponent leaves cover, the smart gun/bullet could fire automatically and hit automatically. A large volume of fire wouldn't be needed.

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  • $\begingroup$ Another idea along the same lines: the hand-held device weapon is actually a target designator for missiles or other guided weapons launched from elsewhere (an airplane, artillery, tank/APC, drone, etc.) $\endgroup$ – Bald Bear Oct 23 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ You and I basically posted the same answer at the same time. =P $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Oct 23 at 16:18
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When it doesn't use discrete ammunition.

The inconsistency you've noted is because the 'stopping power' of a weapon is (mostly) defined by its ammunition: a bigger cartridge/bullet does more damage, and a weapon that fires more bigger cartridges per second does more more more damage.

Any sort of weapon that has a 'continuous' ammunition (ie any sort of beam weapon or "plasma blaster" that fires from a battery or continuous power source) introduces the tradeoff automatically. If your power source delivers a fixed amount of "stopping power" per second, then you can either deliver that in a few more powerful shots or many less powerful ones. It also naturally explains why physically larger and more cumbersome weapons (especially fixed positions) are "more powerful", simply because they have access to a higher-throughput power source.

If you want to maintain some concept of discrete ammunition, you could have a hybrid system where a weapon fires discrete bullets but the explosive is, for whatever reason, replaced by the Good Stuff delivered from the power source.

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what would make armies intentionally choose to equip their soldiers with pistols, bolt-action rifles, and small-magazine automatics?

Better armor on opponents. A breakthrough in carbon fiber that makes bullet-proof cloth lighter and cheaper. So you need explosives (like M203 under-barrel grenade launcher) or armor-piercing rounds (like Barrett M82). Both weapons are single-fire with small magazines.

It's a common trope in first-person shooter video games for the stopping power of a firearm to be inversely proportional to its fire rate and/or magazine capacity.

It is also a common trope in RL too, b/c limiting factor is the recoil that a foot soldier can handle. Single shot from Barrett M82 can break your collarbone if you do not brace it right. Can you imagine what automatic fire from that will do?

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If both sides have extreme difficulty in supplying their troops, they will be forced to rely on low RPM weaponry. The Germans had this problem in WW2, their MG42's used ammunition at high rate, even compared to other LMG's. This put even more strain on their already-struggling supply lines.

So lets say civilization on both sides has collapsed, such that there are no giant factories churning out a million rounds per day. All ammunition is made cottage-industry style. Subsistence farmers sell nitrate for gunpowder from their chickens as a small part of their business. Many people run hand-cranked presses in their free time, making bullets one at a time. Maybe the situation is so dire they've had to switch to paper hulls, like shotguns used to use before plastic became popular.

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    $\begingroup$ It does make you wonder where all these guys in zombie movies are getting all the ammo for their guns. $\endgroup$ – Morris The Cat Oct 23 at 16:13
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    $\begingroup$ This is more or less the practical argument I mentioned in the question. The average WW2 German soldier didn't dual-wield MG-42's while strapped to a jetpack because such things were expensive. It doesn't explain why someone with sufficient ammo for their MG-42 would choose to plink incoming infantry with a bolt-action carbine instead in order to kill them more quickly. $\endgroup$ – Columbia says Reinstate Monica Oct 23 at 16:26
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Railguns

Also, scarcity of resources. But that's so we get to railguns in the first place. Bullets are made of metal, which is a relatively abundant on Earth. But suppose that metal wasn't so plentiful, so the army needed to ration their bullets. At that point, instead of laying down fire so the air is thick with lead, they decide to make shots count.

Enter the railgun. This beautiful marvel of modern engineering take a fired bullet and then runs it along conductive rails to launch the projectile with electromagnetic force to the point where projectiles can break the sound barrier. And this brings me to to Rick Robinson's First Law of Space Combat: An object impacting at 3 km/sec delivers kinetic energy equal to its mass in TNT. (The speed of sound is a mere .343 km.sec, but it's the thought that counts.) This will be especially effective if you swap the metal jacket of your round to something like tungsten to make it both armor piercing and heavier.

The downside to railguns is that they take a lot of energy and resources to fire. To the point where the US Navy only equips them on nuclear-reactor battleships. But I'm sure a bit of handwavium will let you turn these bolt-actions rifles to bolt-actions railguns.

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  • $\begingroup$ For anti-personnel use, how big your railguns and projectiles are going to be? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 23 at 17:02
  • $\begingroup$ Many modern firearms already break the speed of sound. $\endgroup$ – Matthew Oct 23 at 18:00
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Aside from the other answers. In the current global warfare state nothing.

But hypothetically.

Different terrain. Basically urban close quarters and more limited ranges would make the armies think that a rifle that can shoot up to 800 meters is important. It seems limiting but makes sense. This also includes stuff like boarding operation, city fighting, house clearing...etc if they become the main battlefield then we should see bullpup and SMG and pistols more.

But that requires a completely different global warfare change complete with changing you tanks, ifvs, apcs...etc As will as, the other answers about resources, less access to body armor or at least worse body armor.

Accuracy. If you can, somehow, make your soldiers utilize their shots better. Then a 10 round magazine would do that same job a 30 round magazine do. Especially bolt action with their accuracy.

That's what I could think off. Problem with warfare is that it's a complete thing.

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Are you going to limit it to firearms or projectile weapons in general?

Because if you'll accept other weapons there's an easy answer: You're using weapons that need to somehow charge before firing and this charging rate is your limiting factor. You can charge up that big round but it will take longer.

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If you were using weapon that used a more mechanically complex system, it could be because of the torgue-to-speed ratio. If the source of the force used to launch projectiles, has reached it's peak capacity, different designs could focus either on launching one giant slow projectile every second, or 10 smaller fast projectiles in the same second, based on the configuration of gears.

Whether one big projectile is better than 10 smaller would then depend on what they hit.

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