Update: BioWare has confirmed that the level-one Defender is hitting a whole lot harder than it's supposed to.
"I have confirmed with the team that this is in fact a bug related specifically to the default items on a loadout in combination with higher level gear you have equipped," global community lead Andrew Johnson explained. "It’s not functioning as intended and the team is working on it for an upcoming fix."
Figuring out which weapon is the "best" is part of the fun in any new shooter, but the preferred piece in Anthem might not be the one you'd expect. After doing some clever experiments, redditor 'YeetLordSupreme' discovered that the numbers that indicate how much damage your shots do to enemies are seemingly meaningless. That means that while the first-level Defender Rifle apparently only hits for 200-something damage, it somehow kills enemies in far fewer shots than even the most powerful Masterwork-tier endgame weapons.
"I have tested this with various weapons and enemies, and while the numbers vary, the results are always the same: the level 1 defender rifle is by far the most effective weapon in my inventory. It melts literally fucking everything," they wrote.
The issue is apparently the result of a scaling bug, which enables players of different levels and gear quality to play together meaningfully. A gif (via @Nibel) illustrates the issue:
"We look at your pilot level, and we do some scaling based on that and who you’re with. It will be a good experience for you, no matter what," director Jonathan Warner told Entertainment Weekly last December. "Especially with a game like this, you’re not always fully coordinated with your friends. You always have one person in your group who is playing all the time and who is much higher level, and we don’t want to discourage you from playing together, so we’re going to allow that to happen."
It's a good idea, but the system doesn't seem to be working quite as intended. One Redditor suggested that the problem may have been overlooked because the weapon was never meant to be used in Grandmaster content.
Another GIF, via Redditor DnDurken, comparing the level 1 Defender with Legendary Elemental Rage. The numbers indicate different damage values, but the actual damage inflicted appears to be higher from the Defender.
It's impossible to draw conclusions from animated GIFs and a Reddit thread, but technical design director Brenon Holmes acknowledged that something defintely appears to be wonky. "We'll need to investigate this, scaling systems are supposed to allow low level players to play with high level players to be effective against high level enemies," he wrote in a reply. "This is not intended, something ain't right there."
I've reached out to BioWare for more information, and will update if and when I receive a reply. In the meantime, if you've got it, you might as well use it.