The Wrangler has long been plagued by regular accusations of being overpowered. The Short Circuit was massively buffed during the Smissmas 2013 update, to immediate or nigh-immediate bans from all Highlander leagues; subsequent nerfs have failed to placate them (or angry Soldiers and Demos). So where does that leave the Engineer’s third secondary option — the humble Pistol? Many insist that in the face of such strong unlocks, there is no reason for Engineers to use the Pistol — to use considerably less colorful language than a typical comment along those lines. In fact, the Daily SPUF’s own aabicus ran a contest during the Smissmas event soliciting potential Pistol buffs to put it on par with the alternatives.
For all the naysaying, however, I maintain that the stock Pistol still fills a valuable niche in the Engineer’s arsenal. It’s certainly difficult to contest the Wrangler’s superiority in nest-based Engineering with a halfway decent team on your side — or the Short Circuit’s utility for any nest, regardless of team support — but if an Engineer wants to roam and play the flank, that’s where the Pistol truly shines.
Let’s look at the numbers. Short Circuit isn’t even worth considering as a damage output, so we’ll weigh its utility later, but a Wrangled minisentry puts out 96 DPS at all ranges, while Pistol offers 48-129 DPS with a base of 88. The Wrangler’s spread is also more forgiving than the Pistol’s. A clear win for Wrangler, right?
The actual DPS obtained by using the Pistol in conjunction with the Gunslinger is not, in fact, the Pistol’s own DPS. It is the Pistol’s DPS in conjunction with the un-Wrangled minisentry’s base DPS, which is an invariant 48. That means that the minimum DPS of Pistol + Gunslinger is 96 — on par with a Wrangled mini — while the maximum DPS goes up to a whopping 177, almost doubling the damage. Wrangling means consolidating your personal firepower with that of your sentry, with all the attendant advantages and disadvantages. The Pistol makes no such demands.
That, in essence, is the primary benefit of the Pistol over the Wrangler — not the numbers themselves, but the mechanics that brought them about. Although the Pistol has more spread and less burst power at range, it frees a roaming Engineer to truly live up to the name, guarding one flank with a mini while personally patrolling the other with Shotgun for burst damage and Pistol for on-demand, no-strings-attached cleanup or ranged harass. Splitting the damage between sentry and Shotgun/Pistol means that there is no way for a single enemy to eliminate both damage sources at once.
Frankly, without long sightlines, or when facing a map with many enclosed flanks, there is very little reason to use the Wrangler at all. Its strength — ranged burst — is no longer even applicable in such situations. And even on a map like Viaduct, high-level competitive Engineers may opt for the Pistol’s benefits instead.
What about the Short Circuit, then? It’s no damage dealer, but surely this beast of a projectile-nullifying utility confers more benefits than something as everyday as the Pistol?
The question is, why do you need to nullify projectiles as a roaming Engineer? You have no nest to protect. It would be a different story were you playing support for another Engineer, or if you had decided to go faux-Pyro and protect your Medic and their pocket(s); even in the latter case, a real Pyro would have far wider bodyguarding applications, being able to Spycheck, extinguish, and deny non-projectile Ubers. When it all comes down to it, the only reason projectile nullification would come in handy on the flanks would be for self-defense.
There are two problems with this.
First, each projectile destroyed is -20 metal, hindering your ability to flexibly place new buildings or upgrade them as you make your rounds. (It should go without saying that running it with the Widowmaker is highly inadvisable.) A far quicker, thriftier, and more secure way of making those projectiles disappear for good is to kill their originator… and while Shotgun is your Old Reliable in such situations, Pistol is your trusty backup for when those six shots run out — or an introductory tenderizing before the main event.
Second, equipping a self-defense utility when roaming is essentially a selfish act. For all that I regard the combat Engineer as an underrated fighter, the truth is that it simply cannot put out enough damage for its self-defense to justify the sacrifice of a useful heckling weapon, one that can help soften up the opposing team for your teammates and clean up wounded enemies. As a nestless roamer, your personal safety is no longer of primary importance. You need to prevent those Soldiers and Demomen from reaching the rest of your team, not just avoid injury at their hands. The Pistol’s supporting damage cannot be brushed aside here.
Now, had the Engineer gone the way of the Scout and received additional pistol unlocks, perhaps the stock Pistol would have indeed gone the way of the Fire Axe (or the Heavy’s Shotgun, in organized games). Valve have not seen fit to grant more pistols to the Engineer, however. Neither wholly new unlocks nor ones cribbed from the Scout have been added. Thus, stock stands alone as the only Engineer secondary of its kind — a mobile, reliable ranged damage-dealer — maintaining its relevance and its superiority over Wrangler and Short Circuit alike for the roaming Engineer.
I have presented above an argument for the viability — and beyond viability, desirability — of the Pistol in a roaming Engineer’s loadout. There are, of course, cases where even a nesting Engineer may wish to pack a Pistol. A Eureka-Effect-toting ninjaneer may also opt for the Pistol over the Wrangler, especially where sightlines are limited or if some modicum of stealth is preferred. Saddled with a truly unsupportive team, a defensive Engineer who prefers the Rescue Ranger’s set of utilities may wish to let the aimbot do its work while keeping one source of ranged hitscan for deterrence. But it is on the flanks that the Pistol truly shines — and outshines the rest.