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In the episodes TOS: The Return of Archons, and in VOY: Cathexis officers use a wide beam setting on their phasers. In the TOS episode Kirk uses this feature, and in the VOY episode Tuvok uses it.

I have seen all of TNG, DS9, VOY and most of TOS S1. There are many situations in which a wide beam phaser shot would be the solution to sticky situations, but it is not even mentioned. Why is that?

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  • Which specific situations are you speaking of? A phaser is not a silver bullet to every problem in trek, and the wide beam setting is no different. Wide dispersal means the phaser beam has a much shorter effective range and no ability to target specific persons or objects. And when you're talking about enemies that can withstand multiple focused phaser hits, wide dispersal becomes even less useful. Still, I distinctly recall wide dispersal beams being used or the order being given to set hand phasers or phaser rifles to wide dispersal. So it clearly is being used when it's deemed useful. – Lèse majesté Jul 25 '13 at 3:46
  • In addition to Thaddeus' points, I would think also that use of a wide beam attack would likely be a huge power drain on the phaser as well and they don't have unlimited power. Perhaps the use of a wide attack would drain the power cells too quickly and thus is rarely used. – BBlake Jul 25 '13 at 14:45
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The most likely reason for the phaser being used as infrequently and as ineffectively is what I would call "narrative license" or the TVtrope "Thou Shalt Not Kill". Star Trek WANTED to be a show where violence was something Humans did not resort unless forced. This meant more often than not, the weapon technology was always dumbed down or made less effective than it should have been.

Using the phaser effectively still required you to pay attention:

  • Wide area attacks work best if you don't have to discriminate between your targets.

  • Armored or shielded targets could survive your wide area beam and return fire.

  • Since the stun setting is still a release of nadion particles, we have no idea what long term effect such releases have on equipment. Even if there are no visible effects, it could conceivably require recalibration or replacement if caught in the particle release.

Star Trek did try their best to expand the functionality of the phaser over time but in most cases, hand-held weaponry seemed almost an afterthought during the course of the show. At least the early phasers looked like weapons. Note the lack of sights, meaning these were meant to be used at relatively close range.

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Note the lack of sights and the even stranger weaponry configuration of the Next Generation Phaser. It looks more like a remote control than a weapon!

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Stay back! Or I might have to change the channel on you!

Memory Alpha does point out the most common stun settings on a phaser are:

  • Setting 3.1 was enough to cause a Changeling to experience similar discomfort.

  • Setting 3.4 or 3.5 was determined to be a stun setting that would effectively stun and force any Changeling to revert back into the gelatinous state. (DS9: "Homefront")

  • A wide-field stun setting was used when large groups needed to be stunned with a single shot. (TOS: "The Return of the Archons")

  • Some stun settings could also cause unconsciousness. Although mostly harmless when used at these low settings, multiple phaser stuns like this could result in injury and death. (TNG: "Samaritan Snare")

  • There was a heavy stun force setting and a maximum stun setting also known as full stun charge. (TOS: "Tomorrow is Yesterday"; TNG: "Legacy"; TAS: "The Eye of the Beholder")

  • The highest stun setting was strong enough to immobilize a Soong-type android. (TNG: "A Matter of Time")

  • There is certainly a moral imperative in Starfleet to avoid killing whenever possible, but I don't think weapon technology has been dumbed down by the franchise. Federation phasers are designed with a stun setting that's used most of the time, and that's why they don't kill as often. But you still do see plenty of effective lethal and nonlethal uses of phasers. But just as in real-life, it's hard to hit people with a gun. Trained officers often exchange dozens of shots with assailants without a single hit, even from 0-6' the typical hit rate is around 43%. – Lèse majesté Jul 25 '13 at 3:56
  • Then there are super enemies who are biologically or technologically impervious to phasers. Whether this is realistic or not, who can say, but the creative rationale for this is to make the foe more threatening, not to reinforce Roddenberry's pacifist ideals. The real issue I have with phasers is the fact that they're used like semi-automatic firearms rather than beam weapons. Instead of firing instantaneous bursts most of the time, they really should just hold down the trigger and sweep across the enemy. – Lèse majesté Jul 25 '13 at 4:02
  • In the original series/movies, the wide setting seems to be used mostly as a form of crowd control device, in combination with low power stun setting for the phaser, sweeping it across a group of people to incapacitate them, allowing the landing/boarding team to complete their mission and/or evacuate. – jwenting Jul 25 '13 at 6:12
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    To be honest Lèse majesté, making the enemies tougher may have done MORE to reinforce Roddenbery's ideals since the crew would have to use their brains, science, negotiation or diplomacy to solve the problem rather than whipping out a phaser and shooting their way to a "solution" so I stand by the idea that the use of weapons in Star Trek was always a preferred last resort. And honestly I am okay with idea that pacifism (or at least non-violence) should be as viable an option in any interaction as open warfare. – Thaddeus Howze Jul 25 '13 at 6:21
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It's simple, really; they're proportional to each other. The more you increase the beam width, the less the power and the lower the accuracy.

Having a wide beam at close quarters is like shelling the battlefield. Although it's effective, you may lose some of your people in the process.

  • Agree with point #2. On the few occasions we see the "wide" setting being used, it's when there's no chance of collateral damage – Valorum May 29 '15 at 10:26

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