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So, imagine a traditional fantasy world that has progressed into the modern age. Assume technology similar to that we had in world war 2.

With the humans, orcs, elves, dwarves, and the like constantly fighting each other, the tiny pixies have historically been pushed to the wayside due to their small size.

Not anymore. The pixie Queen would like to launch a military campaign to fend off the larger invaders and create a sovereign state.

Pixies in this scenario are about 9 to 10 inches tall. Proportions are somewhat similar to those of a human, but a little bit "chibified"- that is, larger head and eyes, stubbier limbs. Let's say they have the flight speed of a pigeon, and perhaps 10 to 50 times the carrying capacity I assume it would take 7 or 8 of them to carry an AK-47 (first gun that comes to mind), and perhaps a few more to overcome recoil. (I might be wrong there.)

Assume, for the time being, that the pixies have roughly the same population as the other races.

So, to the question:

What tactics and weapons should the pixies use against their larger enemies? This includes any potential weapon, from machine guns to tanks (if the pixies can pilot them)

In addition, what tactics and weapons should the larger races use against the pixies? (I imagine shooting at them would be considerably less effective. It's hard enough to hit a human-sized target.)

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    $\begingroup$ They might actually be better off with the tank. The difficult part about dealing with pixies is that you can't really hit them with bullets-- too small and quick. Now, if they were to kindly stand bunched together in a small space so that your people can aim at them, you lose 1 soldier to kill 10-20 pixies, maybe more depending on their mass, well, that's something completely different. Your pixie queen needs to play to her subjects' strengths, not just copy other species $\endgroup$
    – nzaman
    Apr 23 at 4:24
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    $\begingroup$ guerrilla warfare is the most feasible in cases when your foes are stronger than you. using a mounted gun will be better for pixies $\endgroup$
    – V.Aggarwal
    Apr 23 at 4:26
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    $\begingroup$ An AK-47 weighs ~7.7 lbs. but each loaded magazine weighs ~2 lbs. Your pixies have a rather difficult logistics problem to solve. $\endgroup$ Apr 23 at 4:41
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    $\begingroup$ A pidgeon? Don't you mean a swallow? $\endgroup$
    – Demigan
    Apr 23 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ The pixies would use purpose-designed crewed machine guns. Each carries a part, and the machine gun is assembled in the field, on a tripod. Sufficient ammunition to make this a viable tactic seems improbable. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Apr 23 at 13:31

12 Answers 12

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If your pixies have the same flight performance as a pigeon or a duck, then it'll be impossible to hit them in flight with bullets, but it will be easy to take them down with bird shot. So, the enemies would simply start using hunting shotguns with bird shot 12 gauge rounds, then probably switch to full-auto shotguns like the AA12.

Bird shot has very low penetration power because the projectiles are tiny and light-weight. So it is ineffective against humans, and even worse on orcs because of their thick hide, but it is extremely effective against small light creatures.

If the pixie stays still, then at short range the shotgun is even more effective, but at long range a 22ga varmint gun would work very well too, which means the enemies would be able to carry a ton of ammo.

So, before thinking about offensive tactics, the pixies would have to think about staying alive long enough, and use their main strengths, which are flying and small size, to their advantage.

For example a bunch of pixies carrying an AK47 would be clumped together and slowed down by the weight, an ideal target for birdshot. This would fail before firing a shot.

Since they fly, they should attack from high above, either at night, or during a sunny day. It is easy to aim a shotgun at, say a 20° angle to shoot a duck, but quite difficult to aim upwards (vertically) especially with the sun in your face. When aiming up, you can't rest the shotgun on something, and you'll probably trip, fall on something, and during the fall the shot may go off in the face of someone nearby who is on your side.

Then they would need some form of lightweight armor. It does not take much kevlar to stop bird shot, especially if they fly 50m above the field, the projectiles will be slowed down by aero drag and gravity. And placing the "shield" below the pixie would protect the most fragile part (the wings) better, and it would be more practical, since a flying creature can't carry something heavy in front of them: it would cause them to rotate until the load is on the bottom and the wings are on top again. Likewise if one pixie carried a gun, even a small one, it would always point down due to its weight.

Now if the pixie evolved to fly they would fly with their body in a horizontal position like all birds do, because their wings generate lift towards their back, not towards their heads. To fly while standing up, you'd need hummingbird-style wings, that can generate lift in the proper direction, but then they have to flap back and forth, so you can't have arms, they would get in the way.

So it makes sense that the natural flight position of the pixie is horizontal, so for them it would be natural and comfortable to look directly down, and attack in this direction, while for the non flying enemies it is very uncomfortable to look and attack directly up.

They have to fly high enough to be out of range of flamethrowers. But the use of flamethrowers against pixies would not be such a good idea anyway, as it is not advisable to fire burning napalm in a vertical direction : it comes down eventually.

Therefore the ideal pixie weapon would be some form of bombardment. You could make a mini frag bomb with a fuze in the front that detonates it when it hits something. Add some fins in the back so it points down when dropped. There is no need to spend weight on propellant, since gravity will do the job. All the weight should go into high explosive and frag.

Keeping the shield/armor idea, you can have several pixies carry an armor plate, IF they're all hidden behind it. So the plate would be horizontal, and the pixies on top. It can also serve as a basket to put the mini bombs in, but the bombs should be designed to not explode if the thing is shot.

Ironically, this would be deadly against tanks and bunkers, because the guys inside will be unable to fire upwards, and they have bad visibility, so the pixies could just land on top and throw bombs through the openings. Same for trenches and foxholes.

Since the enemies would cover their trenches with something like fabric, that can soften the landing of the mini bombs enough to prevent them from detonating, they also need a timed fuze like a hand grenade.

Now, if you find the idea of pixie aerial bombardment not "fantasy" enough, you can replace the bombs with something more "forest"-oriented, for example a hive full of hornets, or some form of fire ants. The pixies could even raise such insects for the purpose of using them as weapons, so through selective breeding they could get insects that are friendly towards pixies, or with venom that doesn't harm pixies, but the insects would be quite deadly against other species.

Just think about it, you sit in your bunker and suddenly a hornet hive is dropped from outside through the tiny window, that would make a mess.

Also, see youtube for what happens when someone shoots a hornet's nest with a shotgun.

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  • $\begingroup$ wings are mostly feathers. carrying armour suspended would severly inhibit the lift from their wings probably not going to work. $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Apr 24 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ I'd bet you can stop birdshot at 50m with less than 10 grams of kevlar. $\endgroup$
    – bobflux
    Apr 24 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ sure, but you can't fly carring a horizontal sheet below you $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Apr 24 at 22:00
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    $\begingroup$ if you mean they would wear armour on their underside that would make sense, carrying it makes less sense, $\endgroup$
    – Jasen
    Apr 24 at 22:48
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Swap the AK-47 for hand grenades.

As has been pointed out elsewhere, forcing a group of pixies to lug around a machine gun is impractical, and negates the advantage of their small size by clumping them together as a larger target. A hand grenade can be comfortably carried by a single pixie, however, and makes the perfect weapon for them. Using their capacity for speed and stealth, a lone guerrilla pixie can sneak up to a human trench or tank hatch, deposit the grenade with pinpoint accuracy, pull out the pin and then fly out of range before the explosion. Imagine the terror of the humans when something buzzing past their face is the first warning they get that they have seconds to find and dispose of a grenade, or else their whole squad is toast. In situations where a stealth approach is impossible, flocks of pixies can launch miniature bombing raids on human positions, zooming overhead and dropping their grenades.

Countering these tactics will be difficult; it's very hard for human marksmen to hit small flying targets drilled in evasive manoeuvres. I can imagine that trained animals might make a resurgence; a domesticated hawk can probably pluck a pixie bomber out of the sky with more reliability than a gunshot, and dogs might be able to detect the smell of a pixie infiltrator and bark to alert their masters.

The question asks specifically for tactics so I won't go into detail on operations and strategy, but (as you can imagine) some kind of asymmetric warfare approach, or a combined arms campaign alongside larger allies who have access to heavier weaponry, is the way to go.

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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie Presumably the pixie engineers designing the pixie-grenades could make pixie-friendly pins. Haha! $\endgroup$
    – JS Lavertu
    Apr 23 at 16:50
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    $\begingroup$ Hand grenades, or perhaps specially designed shaped charges youtube.com/watch?v=9CO6M2HsoIA Granted, OP's pixies are a bit bigger than the slaughterbots. $\endgroup$
    – Wolfgang
    Apr 23 at 18:10
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    $\begingroup$ Their size and flight capability also seems ideal for infiltration (and exfiltration) along carefully-scouted routes at night with their grenades. Night is the time when the bridges and the fuel tanks and the ammo resupplies go boom, the officers die in their sleeping bags, and all the batteries go missing from the radios. $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Apr 23 at 19:16
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    $\begingroup$ D&D experience tells me that swarms are best faced with Area of Effect attacks. If pixies are prone to "bomb raids" on the battlefield, you may see a resurgence of flame-throwers... I would advise them to stick to guerilla warfare. $\endgroup$ Apr 24 at 11:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Matthieu M. I agree that the 'bombing raids' would be a tactic of last resort, when a lack of cover or time makes a stealth strike impossible. However, I don't think flamethrowers would be a terribly effective countermeasure. In non-DnD warfare, flamethrowers are mainly used to flush enemies out of static and enclosed targets e.g. trenches and bunkers. Trying to use one to hit a handful of small opponents flying directly above you is a good way to drench your own squad in burning liquid. $\endgroup$ Apr 24 at 12:58
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Stealth and Sabotage

Conventional warfare with weapons designed for much larger creatures is not going to work for Pixies, the forces involved in soaking up the recoil of a machine gun is just not feasible for any number of pixies to soak up.

What Pixies have to their advantage is very small size and flying speed. As others have mentioned it will be next to impossible for their enemies to hit a Pixie with any conventional weapon, so what the Pixies do is use that advantage.

  1. Sneakily fly into the enemies camps or bases and sabotage their weapons. Either break their weapons or set booby traps.

  2. Sneak into their kitchens and poison their food.

  3. (Thanks to Hennes) Use poison tipped darts from blow guns. Fly around the back of an opponent and blow a poison dart in their neck.

If the enemy has no weapons or is incapacitated or killed by poison then they will nott be a threat.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for poison. Poison can be light. And either in food/drink or by something as trivial as a blow gun. $\endgroup$
    – Hennes
    Apr 23 at 14:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Hennes Yes, blow gun is great, zip up to an enemy and dart them with a blow gun in the neck. Easy. $\endgroup$
    – mwarren
    Apr 23 at 14:52
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    $\begingroup$ Because you have covered most of my main idea to answer this question, may I add: hiding in enemies' war machines (i.e. tanks/armored vehicles). Once they mobilize, hijack and wreck havoc. Bring a grenade or two per vehicle as failsafe. Bonus achievement: hold one operator at poison-dart-gunpoint and use that to commandeer the vehicle. Bonus bonus achievement: sabotage and use their radio communications center (in Morse, I believe?) to confuse/disrupt the enemy even further. $\endgroup$ Apr 23 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ In the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman there's a race of creatures similar to the pixies in this question. They wear spurs ala cowboys that are tipped with poison. They can fly around and land on someone and stick them with their spurs $\endgroup$ Apr 23 at 17:19
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Don't fight, negotiate

Let's analyse the pixies

Pixies are 9-10 inches tall. Reasonable height human is 6' = 72 inches approximate to 70 inches because round numbers are easier. Assume that a 70 inch human is 70 kg (I really want to work in metric!) So a pixie is a 1:7 scale model of a human, which means that their mass is about 1/343 of a human - close enough to 1/350 that we can say a pixie masses 200 g. Different proportions may increase that slightly, but if they want to float, let alone fly, they can't mass much more than this each. I'm going to treat all pixies henceforth as having a mass of 200 g. I am also ignoring reproductive rates and mechanisms as unspecified and not relevant.

Note - various questions and answers on this site have established with a fair degree of certainty that the brain of a humanoid creature this small cannot have human-like intelligence. I'm ignoring this because the OP says so.

So, the first question is: How many pixies does it take to fly an AK-47? Yes, you read that correctly - in this obligatory XKCD What If Randall Munroe examines the idea of using machine guns as jetpacks. An AK-47 has a thrust to weight ratio of 2, apparently, and a mass of 4.78 kg, so it means that with up to about 23 pixies on board it can take off, regardless of how strong the pixies are.

I am going to stop analysis of conventional weapons without going any further - ignoring the fact that the AK-47 is a post-WWII firearm, it means that each human-soldier-equivalent firearms require a crew of about a hundred to operate (ie an infantry company), unless in fixed mounts that are mechanically traversed. This is a non-starter of a strategy - 100 pixies are clustered around one firearm which is able to aim at one target, yet bullets passing through the crew's area can potentially kill half a dozen or more each and a single grenade could kill the entire company.

There are military activities that pixies do very well - close reconnaissance (both aerial and ground), repairs in tight access areas, sabotage, precision surgery - but they simply lack the power to take and hold ground, without which they cannot conquer or hold territory.

Let's now look at very simplified economics. Treating the squared-cubed rule as literal truth, a 1:7 scale humanoid will be 7 times stronger proportional to their weight compared to a "normal" human. However, given that the pixies only have roughly the same population as their rival humanoids, this means that as a nation they have 1/49th the "strength" of each of their rivals. They cannot compete economically, especially as they don't even have a starting homeland with factories, mines etc. This removes the option to overcome their size disadvantage through use of mechanised forces.

However, why do they need a homeland? More particularly, why do they need a homeland that they can't negotiate for? Pixies will need space to fly, but as far as their homes go they only need space proportional to their size. They really don't want big homes, because with their small size and large proportional surface area they are going to be more susceptible to heat loss than the larger races. Their ability to fly means that they can comfortably inhabit cliffsides and other areas that humans and other non-flyers don't want. The pixies' best choice is to offer their highly valuable specialised military abilities (see above) to the most reasonable of their neighbours and cut a deal for some real estate that suits their needs but is sub-optimal for the bigger races. Ideally, the deal they will cut will be for their assistance in conquering said real estate and some more areas besides, so it's not even costing their allies anything.

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  • $\begingroup$ "ignoring the fact that the AK-47 is a post-WWII firearm" - I also think this is irrelevant, given that it could be produced pre WWII, precision for the ammunition likely being the main issue. They handcraft them in Pakistan, iirc. It is just no one had the idea how to do the mechanism so simple before that russian guy came along (in a gulag, iirc - extremely interesting story). $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Apr 24 at 10:35
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Pixies wouldn't be using traditional warfare. They'd go for asymmetric warfare - using their strengths to nullify their opponents strengths

As several answers state, stealth and size are advantages. They can spy easily. They may be able to evade traditional detection. They can probably sprinkle copper dust into electronic devices, and cause malfunctions. They can connect copper wire strands too fine for easy human sight and earth wireless equipment, radios, wifi, and other anntennae. They can change labels and wordings on things, or numbers in printed papers - and if you're grabbing or looking for an item, and its been mislabelled or unreliably labelled, that's a real source of issues. They can apply glues and fillers to small locks, on cases, desks, security panels, and to their keys, because you don't need more than a drip or 2 of epoxy or similar, to jam those.

They may be small, but they aren't helplessly weak. They can probably break thin glass using a very sharp point and a pixie size hammer, positioned just so. They can use most touch pads and devices, because these will work mainly based on capacitance or perhaps in some cases resistance, not weight or force. They can disable or mute many kinds of alarms and relays by putting soft material in the moving parts.

Last, they can ally up, and sell/partner their abilities. There may be other enemies who are natural allies, where the pixies provide these abilities, and others provide brute force.

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Use mercenaries.
Orcs, dwarves and other strong creatures could bring ammos for heavy (200+ mm) cannons while pixies act as spotters.
Other could do everything they could do in battle.

Prefer sabotage actions and guerilla war.
Thanks to their size, pixies could infiltrate to most objects (HQ, ammunition depot, nuclear plant, water tank etc).
IMHO, sabotage aims to military targets while terrorism aims to civilians. Which targets to aim and where (and when) to stop is up to you.
Pixies could initiate traps (like shooting to convoy or mining roads) and overcome other races in scouting.

Don't use common weapons for pixy squads.
Since it's very hard to aim to a single pixy, they could fight at less distance without risk. It could allow to use smaller calibers and/or less bullets in clips. In extreme case, single pixy would use single-shot gun at close range and then retreat using recoil from gun.

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  • $\begingroup$ "In extreme case, single pixy would use single-shot gun at close range and then retreat" - that will not work. This will have less power than a single shrapnel from a shotgun and thus not really do any damage unless you use it EXTREMELY delicate (i.e. hitting an eye). $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Apr 24 at 10:38
  • $\begingroup$ @TomTom I mean single shot from 'common' calibers like 5.56mm or 4.6mm which is intermediate cartridges. Probably our pistol cartridges would be a good choice: still have.enough energy to kill and small recoil and mass to carry by 1-2 pixes. $\endgroup$
    – ADS
    Apr 26 at 5:47
  • $\begingroup$ Nah, remember that the pixies can carry 75g only - as per OP definition. There is no way to handle the recoil, and any shooting mechanism in itself os a squad issue. $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Apr 26 at 10:01
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Rather than suggest an alternative action or weapon I'll try to give an actual tactic they could employ.

Pixies are small, and they can relatively easily hide even in plain sight as even their weapon is relatively small. The biggest poblem pixies face is recoil. To overcome this the weapons are always placed on the ground, using bipods or similar to steady the weapon, reduce the amount of pixies required to lift and aim it and to absorb much of the recoil. The pixies could also use drills and shovels to dig in a pintle mount for the weapon to rest on.

The basic battlefield tactic pixies would employ is:

  • fly the weapons to an area they want to fight at, preferably at night or into cover.
  • multiple positions can be readied, preferably with a variety of claymores and mines surrounding the weapons. Most of these positions wont even be manned initially.
  • once in place the pixies wait for visuals or for enemies to walk through their LOS. They fire as enemies pass through.
  • whenever a position seems in danger they leave it. All the pixies lose is the equipment assuming they don't inflict enough damage to take the area.
  • once they leave they just move to another pre-prepared position, likely one that can strike at the previous position.
  • The pixies will simply keep moving from one position to the next until they either can't return to an old or new position due to risks or all enemies are slain.

You will not have a bunch of pixies fly in and assault someone in flight. At best you can expect them to fly in low and deploy the weapon on the ground quickly. Naturally the pixies would modify the weapons to easily support itself and for pixies to have an easy handhold to steer and fire the weapon. Although aiming and firing will still be a team task.

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Stealth, explosives, artillery, mercenaries, and guerrilla warfare are all great ideas, but to add on if you are looking for a weapon that works for a pixie “grunt” soldier, I would go old school. Pixies are incredibly mobile and small, at the cost of strength and durability. This shows that an aggressive, close range fighting style would work best. I think that tactical knives could be a great standard weapon, if the pixies were trained in evasive maneuvers to close distance fast and cut vital areas like the throat. They are probably too small to use any built-for-humans (or elves, dwarves, etc.) firearms excluding custom built ones. If they are trained to hone a fast melee fighting style, heavily supplemented by the other ideas mentioned, pixies could be a unique and fearsome force to fight against.

Side note: It would be cool if they were employed for espionage by other nations.

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    $\begingroup$ "I think that tactical knives could be a great standard weapon," because a human sized opponent will totally be endangered by a knife of what - 5mm? With no strength behind it. If you FLY you have no stable position to stab from, so either your speed or your mass determine your energy. That is as dangerous as a pigeon bite. $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Apr 24 at 10:39
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As others, I'd suggest to play to pixies advantages rather than try them to adopt conventional human-size weapons.

Presumably in your fantasy world Geneva Protocols have not been invented. Any war-crimes imaginable are at your disposal.

Pixies are free to use chemical and bacteriological warfare. Their small size and flying abilities will help with delivery and stealth spread: e.g., poison wells, spread decease in enemy camps, destroy their provision stockpiles.

Meanwhile, pixie scientists can work on viruses that target only particular races: orcs, humans, dwarves. That can be later used to reach MAD-like balance.

If you are playing the long game, pixies can make missions to the homeland of your enemies and wreak havoc there. If you find a way to cause permanent infertility among civilian population, prevent their children from growing up (like Peter Pan) or indoctrinate them with pacifism there won't be any enemies left in a few generations.

Another promising avenue for research is natural pixie abilities that exist in your universe. I have strong suspicion that "Pixie dust" is a nanobot technology. If that can be researched, weaponised and reproduced at scale - it will be a lot more terrifying than nukes.

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Pixie : Miniature Tactical Warrior

Weapon of Choice : Enemies

Pixie soldiers use their size, stealth and concealment magic to infiltrate enemy lines, looking for emotional ignition points. Maybe a human mercenary has been teamed up with a couple of orc foot soldiers and maybe this particular human has a little prejudice problem. Despite best attempts, his military discipline cannot completely conceal his race-hatred which radiates from him like a miasmic stench. The orcs might not be perceptive enough to sense this, but pixie soldiers are trained to ride on the invisible emotional currents of potential conflict. It only takes a few whispered words, spoken in a decent imitation of the orc accent, and the human will turn on his comrades.

*"What did you just say?" The human growls as he turns with blade unsheathed.

Edward the orc looks puzzled because neither he nor his brother had said anything. But anger and sharp steal... not good. Edward raises his axe and grunts.
"Let's get him!" someone says in a voice that sounds a bit like his brother's.

Blades and severed body parts fly.*

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So your advantage being small size and greater numbers, what you want to do is this: Give each pixie a small piece of uranium/plutonium. Just enough that if 10 or so come close enough together, it'll form critical mass and boom, you've got tactical stealth nukes. Sure, it's a suicide mission, but frankly so is the AK-47 strategy, and this would be many orders of magnitude more effective. You apparently have plenty of pixies to spare, you can't beat the size : damage ratio, and there's basically no way any army could stop them. However many pixies you kill, there'd always be enough of them to get together and drop a nuke wherever they want to. Granted, they'd probably only have to succeed at this strategy once or twice. As soon as the world knows what they're capable of, they'd be wise to leave them alone.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Just enough that if 10 or so come close enough together, it'll form critical mass and boom, you've got tactical stealth nukes." - nope, not in a normal universe. They can carry 75g. Plutonium critical mass is above 9kg, neptunium 7kg. That is closer to 100 pixies. Small nukes work by implosion - which requires explosives to push the core together. Which - weight. Nukes are a lot, but NOT low weight. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Critical_mass $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Apr 24 at 10:41
  • $\begingroup$ @TomTom OP said they have the flight speed of a pigeon but up to 10-50x the carrying capacity, so that brings you back down to about 10 pixies again, and possibly less, giving you enough extra capacity to add on a small conventional explosive charge, they can be timed to all go off at once when enough pixies are in formation... $\endgroup$ Apr 26 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, that happens when you edit a question - you make answers and comments invalid. $\endgroup$
    – TomTom
    Apr 26 at 14:45
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They use man-sized tanks rather than manually carrying the guns.

Simply put, carrying the guns manually is a non-starter for a variety of reasons discussed in other answers - their vulnerability to birdshot, the relatively low carrying capacity, the fact that it'd require a whole squad of them to carry a single weapon, etc.

However, there is a solution for this that would allow them to bypass all of these weaknesses: mounting their machine guns on pixie-sized tanks. The US military is currently testing unmanned ground vehicles armed with machine guns; with the pixies, you just take the "unmanned" part out of the equation, to make a roughly man-sized tank crewed with 3 or 4 pixies.

This might even make their ground units more durable than human units rather than less, because all of their tanks are armored heavily enough to resist most small arms fire (but not anti-tank fire).

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