I apologize for my recent hiatus. I've been trying to get settled in and simultaneously getting ready to move again. I've not had the opportunity to play much warhammer but I have been able to speak with Son of Horus and others around Bloomington. It's taken some time to convince me, but I think it's time to shine a light on an under-appreciated option. Yes, I'm here to talk to you about why the heavy bolter is not a bad weapon, but one who is fundamentally good and should shine brighter in the metagame for a good while. More after the break.
Alright, since I've rarely enough seen the man-portable version, let's re-introduce ourselves to today's subject: 36", S 5, AP 4, Heavy 3. Like most imperial weapons, the heavy bolter is a no nonsense weapon without any special rules. As a heavy weapon, it is competing with weapons like the missile launcher and multimelta for the free/cheap slot in tactical and devastator squads. It faces what I believe to be stiffer competition from the autocannon for the cheap slot in imperial guard units, but it can bring something to the table that none of those others can.
The change in rules from fifth to sixth (advent of hull points, reduced the utility of transports) has made the ability to penetrate tanks less important than the ability to damage them and then kill the unit inside. The durability of tanks in fifth edition made them arguably more important than the unit inside, as best exemplified by the term DAVU (Dire Avenger Vehicle Upgrade) that floated around eldar circles. Now that the infantry of armies has regained its place what is needed to win games, the choice of weapons must adapt.
In fifth edition, most tactical squads brought missile launchers or multimeltas (plasma cannons if you're crimson fists) while devastators brought missiles or the ocasional lascannons. The need to kill vehicles combined with weapons integration meant that tactical squads often suffered from having either bolters or heavy weapons firing at sub-optimal targets, possibly wasting their shots entirely. The change in meta allows the tactical squad to combat squad into two specialist units.
The increased need to kill infantry, especially mid-range infantry like dire avengers and fire warriors means the heavy bolter has an opportunity to shine. Its range allows it to fire the first volley into fire warriors who are killed on a 2+ unless they stick to cover. The ability to determine movement by model allows the squad soe freedom of movement while not forcing the heavy bolter to snap shoot.
Because it is a weapon that kills infantry well, the combat squad that carries it does not waste their bolter fire because of their heavy weapon. this allows the rest of the tactical squad to carry their assault weapons to the enemy while receiving supporting fire. The incentive to combat squad with the heavy bolter means the tactical squad can purchase a razorback and fully utilize all but three bolters.
Even if your gaming environment is primarily based on fighting other marines, I would suggest bringing heavy bolters. While you will still need other heavy weapons to deal with most tanks, the heavy bolter allows you to apply wounds to marines more frequently than they can with bolters or frag missiles. While there is a smaller chance to fail when your opponent doesn't get the chance to roll saves, the weapons that can do that to marines are less common than those that can do that to non-marines. In my experience with fighting marines with non-marines the solution is not to use low ap weapons, but rather high ap, high volume weapons. Against low ap weapons marines can flee to cover, but against high volume weapons, there is no counter-play except to hope the dice work for you.
I hope this look at the heavy bolter has given you reason to think and possibly bring this weapon. While I don't play my marines anymore, discussing the state of 40k with Son of Horus has given me a reason to look at it in a new light. The increased pace of codex releases will hopefully mean a more fluid metagame and help to break the stagnation that occurs in gaming when the rules change infrequently.