A Guide to The Holy Gun Paladin (Pathfinder)
The holy gun paladin archetype (Ultimate Combat 63) is a wonderful example of how poor mechanical design can damage an otherwise wonderful concept. What’s not to love about a paladin with a gun? The archetype as a concept can work for any number of characters types, from a town sheriff with a western flair to Vash the Stampede from Trigun . This is unfortunate because, as written, the archetype is an incredibly poor choice for such a character concept. In every circumstance, a character with a single level in gunslinger who then takes the rest of her levels in the standard paladin will have largely the same flavor and be much more effective at smiting evil with gunpowder than a holy gun could ever manage to be.
How does the archetype go wrong? Sadly, even from level 1, the holy gun is at a disadvantage to a standard paladin. The holy gun gives up three feats of armor proficiency (medium armor, heavy armor, and shields) at level one, and also gives up the ability to detect evil at will. The latter is especially important, as it prevents the holy gun from “searching for evil,” as indicated they’re wont to do in the archetype’s flavor description. In return, the holy gun gains firearm proficiency, two bonus feats (Amateur Gunslinger and Gunsmith) and a battered gun as if she were a gunslinger. On the face of it, this might seem like a fair trade, but the battered gun she gains is essentially a non-ability completely necessary for the character to function as intended, and so the holy gun is inherently less able than a standard paladin to seek out evil and smite it.
But it actually gets worse. At 2nd level, the holy gun gains the smiting shot deed, which replaces the regular paladin’s smite evil ability. This is a bit odd, as the paladin normally gains smite evil at 1st level, which makes the holy gun worse than the paladin at smiting evil at 1st level than she was to begin with. Once again, though, it’s worse than that once you keep reading. Normally, when a paladin smites evil, she gains the appropriate bonuses against her target for an entire combat, allowing her to really bring down some righteous pain on her evil foe numerous times and as part of a full attack (and when you’re adding your level to damage, that can add up very quickly!).
The smiting shot deed, however, is a standard action that allows a single shot. In the damage department, for that single shot, it’s actually a bit better than a standard smite evil, since it lets the paladin add both her Charisma and her level to damage (likely because guns are very likely to hit at close range), but when you factor in that she can’t ever full attack with that damage, that advantage is quickly lost over the long run. Unlike smite evil, the smiting shot deed doesn’t grant the paladin any deflection bonus to armor class, making it a more one-dimensional ability than its counterpart.
Unlike smite evil, which the paladin gains a number of uses per day based on her level, smiting shot requires the use of grit, of which the holy gun only has 1 point initially (though she can gain points up to her Wisdom modifier in any given day in the same manner as a gunslinger, her grit resets to 1 point at the beginning of each day). Theoretically, this allows the holy gun to smite her foes much more often than a standard paladin, though her limited grit reserve makes this difficult in practice. It isn’t until 11th level that she gains additional grit (equal to her Charisma modifier) each day that she can regularly use smiting shot. But, by 11th level, if she’s using Deadly Aim (and she should be!), she’ll more than equal the bonus damage of her smiting shot with a standard full attack (three shots), and that’s not even counting any additional attacks she might gain from Rapid Shot or haste. Thus, at best, smiting shot is situationally useful , in the event that the holy gun needs to move before getting into range to attack. Even that situational use is very situational, because the holy gun can’t detect evil as a normal paladin, so she could very well waste her grit targeting a foe that isn’t evil.
What this all boils down to is that a single level of gunslinger (preferably with the mysterious stranger archetype to have a grit pool that relies on Charisma instead of Wisdom, for synergy) gives a paladin her gun and some grit. She still gains smite evil at 2nd level if gunslinger is her 1st level. If she does take the mysterious stranger archetype, she gains the focused aim deed, which lets her add her Charisma modifier to her firearm damage rolls for one round, which, given that it doesn’t limit her to standard action attacks, is probably better than smiting shot could ever be, especially given that she can use it on a target she’s declared as her target for smite evil.
All the gunslinger/paladin loses out on relative to the holy gun is a few gunslinger deeds later in levels. Though the admitted loss of the quick clear deed (the mysterious stranger archetype swaps it out) is difficult to deal with, by 11th level (when the holy gun could normally get the deed), a greater reliable firearm is almost within reach for the gunslinger/paladin, making misfires a worry of lower levels.
So, my advice, if you want to play a gun-toting paladin? Ignore the holy gun archetype. You’ll be more effective, and you won’t even be missing anything except for the paladin capstone ability (but so few games reach 20th level to begin with that this shouldn’t be a concern).
So, how can you do put all that to use if you want to play a “holy gun?” Here’s an example of how I’d use the gunslinger and the paladin to create an effective character with the same flavor. This is only a level 5 build, but it is meant more as a foundation for your character, rather than a “how to” guide.
I recommend using two archetypes: for gunslinger, go for mysterious stranger (Ultimate Combat 51); for paladin, take divine hunter (Ultimate Combat 62). Mysterious stranger gives you a Charisma-based grit pool and the focused aim deed, which lets you add Charisma to your firearm damage for a round. These obviously have great synergy with paladin. Divine hunter gives you Precise Shot as a bonus feat, and also adds a few ranged special abilities to your divine bond. Neither of these is necessary, but both of them have nice benefits for you. (If you don’t take divine hunter, you’ll have to get Precise Shot some other way.)
Human Gunslinger 1/Paladin 4
Ability Scores (15 Point Buy): Str 10, Dex 17, Con 13, Int 8, Wis 12, Cha 14
1 Point Blank Shot, Rapid Reload (pistol)
2 Precise Shot (bonus)
3 Rapid Shot
5 Deadly Aim
You’re free, of course, to go with any race that fits your concept. After level 5, you’ve got the essential feats out of the way, allowing you to customize as you see fit beyond that. I’d recommend taking the rest of your levels in paladin to maximize your number of smites per day. Don't forget to use paper alchemical cartridges, as these, together with the Rapid Reload feat, let you reload your weapon as a free action, allowing you to take advantage of Rapid Shot and, later, your iterative attacks.
That's all for the holy gun. I can't recommend the archetype itself, but thankfully, the concept as a whole is definitely workable (and effective!) within the rules.