The shooting phase is an often used, but underutilized part of Warhammer 40k. It seems simple, really. Your army shoots the other guy's. His guys die, you win, right? Wrong. There are tricks to mastering the shooting phase that you may or may not have heard before. Some will seem obvious and really, they probably are. However, three quarters of the opponents I've played didn't know about them or use them. You can maximize the potential of every army's shooting, even an army that doesn't exclusively depend on guns.

First and foremost, let me drum this into your head: The shooting phase is simply a matter of prioritizing. Prioritize. Prioritize. Prioritize!

By this, I mean that you look at your units, you look at the opponent's units, and you shoot his units in a certain fashion so that you maximize your firepower. Doing so, you get the most damage possible that either completely destroys or makes his units useless.

Prioritizing the Shooting Phase

1. Check to see how many potential targets your units have. This is always your first order of business. Let's look at two examples.

First, let's say you have two units, a carnifex and hive tyrant, that can only see the same target. It's obvious that they have to shoot the same target. However, let's say the carnifex could only see the one squad and the hive tyrant could see two separate squads. If you shoot with the hive tyrant first and kill the whole squad, your carnifex won't be able to shoot anything anymore because that was the only target it could have seen. However, if you had shot the units that could only see one target first, your options would have opened up. You might have killed the whole squad with carnifex shooting and you could have turned the Hive Tyrant on another squad, doing more damage. Get in the habit of looking for and shooting with your "one-target units" first.

2. Shoot your units that barely have range first. Another seemingly obvious thing to do, but I constantly see players, even veterans not doing this. When maximizing your shooting, your job is to recognize that you want all your guns shooting, not just the long ranged ones. If you have two units that can shoot an enemy unit, always shoot the shorter ranged ones first. Short ranged weapons rarely have as many targets as a long ranged weapon. If you used the long ranged one to shoot first, you might kill off the only enemy unit that the short ranged weapons could target. Let's take another example.

Your chaos marine unit with plasma pistols and your obliterators are shooting at the opponent's 5man lascannon Guard command squad with a lascannon and his Hellhound. The Hellhound is within 12" of the marines, but the command squad is not. Statistically, you have a better shot to blow up the Chimera with the obliterators, but the chaos marines only have range to the hellhound. In this case, even though the obliterators have a better chance to destroy the tank, shoot with the chaos marines first. If you had shot with the obliterators first, they would have likely killed the tank, but your marines would never have gotten to shoot anything.

Also, that Guard command squad survived and had a lascannon that they're now shooting at your obliterators, likely killing one. But if the chaos marines shot with their pistols first and had blown up the Hellhound, your obliterators would have been free to kill the command squad, you would have taken no casualties, and you would have gotten more bang for your buck.

Template Weapons (ordnance, barrage)

These template weapons are some of the most versatile weapons in the game, but also the most prone to being expensive and doing nothing. I've seen lots of people complain about them being either too good or no good at all. On one hand, you've got a weapon that can annihilate entire squads, can keep squads from moving, doesn't use Ballistic Skill, and generally causes carnage.

On the other hand, though, you've got a weapon that's very unreliable. I can't count how many times I've laid the pie plate template down on a squad and it scattered 6 inches away from the target, doing no damage. At that point, I'm looking at my Defilers or Leman Russ Tanks, wondering if it would be more fun to throw them in a vat of acid or in the oven at 600 degrees. However, I absolutely love taking ordnance (also known as pie-plate) weapons, just for the anxiety they cause my opponents.

As far as using them, let's look at some methods to make them more reliable:

Know your targeting priorities.

1. You have to make a judgment call each time you shoot when you should shoot it. Pie plate weapons (with the exception of short-ranged tanks like the Demolisher Vindicator) usually reach clear across the table, which means they're a multiple threat weapon (see rule #2 above).

2. You also have to make a judgment call to see whether or not you should shoot the template weapon first. Back in older editions of the game, you had to guess with these weapons and shoot with them before any of your other squads. Not so in 4th edition 40k, where you can shoot your pie-plate weapon at any point during your shooting phase. This sometimes presents a conflict when you're shooting. If you shoot at the start, you've got a larger casualty pool and there's less likely of a chance that you'll scatter and hit nothing at all. If you kill ¾ of a squad with bolterfire and then drop a template on them, you've got a very good chance of scattering off of your target and hitting nothing. But if you drop it while the squad is fresh, you'll probably hit something even if you scatter off target.

Rule of Thumb: If you're going to be shooting a direct fire template weapon, maximize the template weapon hits by shooting first, then clean up with the anti-troop guns. If you have an indirect weapon, you might want to wait.

The Ordnance Barrage (Indirect) Template is either an infantry thinner (and force pin checks) or a luck-shot (to hit valuable targets and have a higher chance of scattering off). If your opponent has bunched up units or there are no juicy or threatening targets (i.e. kill a basilisk behind trees in one shot) use it at the first of the turn in an area that has lots of bodies, just to try and pin a squad or two. If your opponent scatters his units around or hides behind trees, shoot it last. That way, you still have the option of trying to finish off a decimated squad using the template or trying for a luck shot over trees into a valuable, hidden target.

3. See if you can hit multiple squads with one shot. If two enemy units are close together, you're often better off by putting the template hole on a straggler that's close to the other unit. If you hit two squads at once with an ordnance barrage shot, that's two pin tests your opponent has to take as opposed to one. It also demoralizes people. I see a lot of people, when they're moving two squads together and one gets pinned, that they won't move with the other for fear of charging with just one unit. It's like they failed both pin tests and you can just keep shooting at them for another turn.

Breaking Down Your Opponent's Units

Take a close look at your opponent's army during and after deployment. Prioritize your targets before the game even starts.

1. Identify "hard targets" and "soft targets."

Every army has tough units. These are the units that if you shot at them all day, you likely wouldn't even dent their armor. Monolith. Leman Russ Demolisher. Grav Tank. Land Raider. All of these vehicles look intimidating, are extremely tough to kill, and require a horrendous amount of firepower to bring down. After playing for a long time, you'll find that even though these tanks are extremely durable, they don't kill enough to make destroying them worthwhile. If you have an infantry Space Marine army, the Monolith will take you all day to destroy with your lascannons. But how much will it kill? It poses a threat of some sort, obviously. However, playing against the Necrons over and over will you that the Monolith won't destroy your whole army; it's best to just suck it up, take the damage, and shoot something else.

As opposed to these hard targets, there are some who have a very (figuratively speaking) soft underbelly. Ork Wartrakks, Vyper Jetbikes, Rhinos, Tau Battlesuits and the like can be destroyed pretty quickly when you shoot them with even light weapons. They don't require a significant expenditure of resources to kill them and they can usually be taken care of quickly. Different armies have an easier time dealing with certain units, which might change your targeting. For example, if you have weapons like Brightlances, a Land Raider becomes a softer target. Look at your weapons and look at your opponent's units, then decide which units are the easiest for you to take care of. Then kill those first, so you don't devote a wasted energy to the target you have a hard time destroying.

Rule of Thumb: If it's armor and you're getting a penetrating hit on a 3 or better, it's a SOFT Target. Shoot it until it blows up. With infantry, shoot them if they have a 4+ or worse on their armor saves, it's a SOFT Target. Shoot to kill. If you're facing a HARD Target, shoot it only enough to stun it or keep it from shooting you for a turn.

2. Identify "slow targets" and "fast targets."

If you've dumped points into your guns, the fast targets are your bane. Fast targets include Vyper Jetbikes, Ork Trukks, Dark Eldar Raiders, and Land Speeders, among others. Slow targets include the Talos, Wraithlords, Dreadnoughts, the Great Unclean One, and similar units. Fast units will often charge you on the second turn, tying up your line of sight and your units that shoot. These units are often soft targets (see rule #1), so you can kill them easily, but they'll hug cover to get away from your guns. If you know they'll be on you quickly, do your best to deal with them first, even if some huge gribbly monster is walking behind them. You might think that shooting carnifex is going to kill your devastator squad, but I'll almost guarantee that the hormagaunts running in front will hurt you more by denying you shots.

With that said, slow targets and fast targets do not necessarily correspond to assault units or even shooting. I've had 1-man units of Vyper Jetbikes race 24'' to an objective to beat me in a game. I've trudged after Dark Eldar Raiders full of Wyches, only to have them zip out of range of my guns or hide behind cover where I couldn't touch them. Beware these units and take them out quickly if you're playing any objective missions, or you will suddenly find yourself 500 victory points down on turn 6 and nothing to do about it.

Rule of Thumb: Unless your opponent is unskilled, you should never be able to shoot at a FAST Target until they've shot at you first. If you survive a round of shooting by these units, fire back with everything, especially if it's both FAST and SOFT.

3. Identify "dangerous targets and "safe targets."

I'll bet you're getting bored with this whole "________ target" thing. If you are, I'm doing my job. You need to get in the habit of looking at your opponent's army and quickly analyzing what can and can't be killed quickly and what will kill YOU quickly. Good players know through either experience or statistics (shudder) what the odds are of doing damage.

Rule of Thumb: Dangerous units have the ability to do massive damage to an infantry squad per shooting phase or they can pop a tank. If you're facing a DANGEROUS HARD Target, save it for last and shoot it only to keep it from firing back. You don't necessarily have to destroy the unit; you just have to stall until you can properly deal with it by bringing a lot of firepower to kill it.

There's not as much to this rule because I do believe that you will figure out dangerous targets only by playing against lots of opponents. Some units are obviously good against all armies, like Landspeeders. There's nothing that a Landspeeder won't be able to take on, given a chance to shoot. However, there are other units that are only dangerous to some armies. To an all-infantry Space Marine army, a mobile Tau army is scary. Those battlesuits will shoot and hide behind trees, while the marines won't have the ability or mobility to save themselves.

Take that Tau army against a Scout-heavy marine army. You suddenly have a different type of game, where the Tau are desperately scrambling to get away and getting their brains beaten in. Some people think of it as a paper-rock-scissors game, but that's too simplistic. One army doesn't automatically win against another, but it might start with some advantages. It's up to skilled players to try and negate those advantages by good play and maneuvering.

The Chart

Here's a small breakdown of what I've talked about. Take a look at the chart, read the descriptions, and you can prioritize your shooting using the guidelines I've laid out. The top descriptions are in the "Holycrapshootit!" category. The bottom ones are of the "leave it alone" category. If you're wondering about any particular unit you might face, use the Target Priority Chart to figure out what to shoot first.

Sephiroth87's Target Priority Chart

Dangerous - Has the ability to cause massive damage when it gets in range. Fast - Can either move very fast or charge very quickly. Can get to you by turn 2. Soft - Not in cover, open-topped, and/or you can penetrate armor of 4 or less.
Safe - Does not negate infantry armor, penetrates your tank armor on 5 or better Slow - Gets to you by turn 3 or later or cannot shoot you until turn 3 or later. Hard - Wounding on 5+, armor save of 3+ or penetrating armor on 5+


I am in no way saying that this is the only way to win. I am, however, saying that this is how I win. As with everything I write, this is with the intention of people who want to play well and win. I don't put in a lot of flowery language and I don't spend a lot of time making things complicated. If you don't like it because it's too simple, please realize that not everyone knows this stuff. I'm just teaching what I've learned from many, many losses.

From all of these ugly losses, I learned early on that you have a finite amount of resources, but so does your opponent. If you just do things with a coherent plan and maximize those resources, you find yourself winning more games and becoming a tough opponent because your opponent can't or won't use the same resources to his best advantage.

While you may not win every game, there are very few games where your opponent won't sweat.