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Flails, are they reasonable?

DreadKhanDreadKhan Member Posts: 3,859
I've always been fascinated by flails, including back when I thought they were all called morning stars... I learned from DnD and farming that the clubbing implement with a chain or hinge was generally called a flail, while a morning star was actually a ball with spikes according to some big dusty tomes I read about weapon types in high school, many, many years ago, and these were normally on a solid handle, and were very nasty devices.

Anyways, are flails practical weapons? I've watched lots of videos about flails, and most of the creators agree that flails are, if ever used in any numbers (I believe they actually were in a few areas, but not widely and not for long) they weren't very successful or influential, and thus are a silly weapon at best, and dangerously stupid at worst, and largely ineffective.

Now, being out in the country and having a ready supply of wooden handles, old chains, and metal weights, I would occasionally weld up a flail to play with. The first ones required assistance, as I didn't know how to weld, and they were obviously far too heavy for my strength level, but they were a riot to play with, and I was amazed at how hard I could swing the thing. Later, I watched Return of the King in the theaters, and whoa, the Witch King was using a flail JUST LIKE MINE! Only he's using it with one hand, and with more proficiency, but still, that was cool. I felt like Star Wars Kid, and didn't play with flails for awhile. :P

Eventually, I made a new one, and this time I had the idea of making it reasonable in weight, using a lead filled hollow object as the head. This one actually worked, but wasn't quite durable enough, so I retired it, but I did note that it was nice that the chain was short enough that if I didn't choke up on the handle I didn't need to worry about whacking my hand! So that was nice. I had learned a thing!

I also made some flails with very long chains, and no handle, often with a biggish weight. These were fun, and could inflict pretty massive blows, but in a pitched battle these would be impractical in many ways, as you'd need to keep allies at a distance, and just, uh, flail away. ;) But still, it could be a shield wall disrupter, if you put a 4 to 10 lb weight on a 10 foot chain, which you could really swing for the fences with, that'd bust a shield up pretty badly I bet, and a loose formation of these might actually have messed up a shield wall, though they'd need heavy armour to survive in melee, and would likely need a good side arm. It'd be like how two-handed swords were used to break up pike formations I suppose, but realistically, I think a bunch of guys with sledge hammers or big axes could do the same, and might be more effective in some ways.

So, the most recent flail I made, and a nifty design indeed, it's got two chains with ~1 lb weights on the end, about 2 ft long, and the handle is about 4 ft, and is very heavy ash wood, with a very noticeable kink in it roughly where one's hand should not go past to avoid whacking one's self, a conscious bit of design actually to make it more effective! Anyways, with this device you mostly would strike with flicks of the wrist, and I think even a counter balance on the end, like a pommel, would make this work even better, making it more agile. The nice thing of course is that are striking off target, from a funny angle with this, so it's very awkward to defend against, and those 1lb weights hit REALLY hard quite easily, and could easily kill I'd wager, even with armour on, and without using a big wind up. Now, you CAN use it with a big wind up, and the long handle means you can really get a long level to strike with, giving huge power, but this isn't how I'd fight a duel with one! Note, the handle is quite heavy, so you can also use it to club an opponent, which is a big asset should someone close with you. If you put spikes on it, the clubbing would be even more effective, and it wouldn't likely interfere with gripping, as you don't want to grip where the spikes are anyways. These spikes would get hit by the chains and weights, but that's okay I think, as long as they're sturdy ones they'll survive. Keep in mind that if the chains are striking from the side a bit, and the club can strike directly, this is a very confusing weapon to defend against, and to top it all off, the chains aren't connected to each other, and join the handle from opposite sides, meaning the two won't always strike the same spot! much harder to parry that way, though sometimes it still hits together, so there is that. I think it depends on how I'm holding the handle when I swing. I think if the chains joined the handle, which could have a bit of a T shape, with the chains on the top ends of the T shape would be interesting, thought it might be harder to wield in some ways. Final point, you can do a figure 8 with it that would interfere with attacking, helping to mitigate the lack of a shield in melee, but you'd be really vulnerable to archers!

So, are there any actual advantages to flails? I got to thinking about it, and I came to a few conclusions, one, that the flail's unique acceleration only applies I think when you stop swinging it and let the flail finish the swing, changing it's momentum into a rotation from a point (where the chain ends, with the weight on the far end of the chain, fully extended), and until you stop swinging the chain will naturally form a straight line as long as you're going fast enough. Faster, it'll still be straight, just like a mace or hammer handle, so not much advantage here unless you're very good with the flail and know when to stop your swing and let the flail switch to rotation rather than swinging the whole thing. Still, a flail CAN accelerate very fast if you 'flick' it, which works better with a two handed flail than a one handed, and I think that's the way to fight with a flail mostly, with quick blows that hit hard for their speed, but aren't necessarily as hard as a mace could do with a big swing, because the flail becomes very clumsy in big swings, and you can't defend yourself effectively.

Regarding Shad's point about the flail not transferring force effectively, I have an anecdote he might find interesting... I like to carry logs around for exercise, and do so in a forest, especially when it's not super hot. So one day it began snowing when I was out working, but I kept on, and was carrying a reasonably heavy log (for then, now I can carry much heavier), which I tripped while carrying! It landed on my arm, and bounced off, before bouncing off my leg and ending up on the ground. I had very nasty bruises despite this log only bouncing off me, and I've had a basketball hit my head before too, and that also sucked, despite bouncing, so I assure you, a good bounce can transfer all the energy you need. In fact, in a fist fight, it is the actual first instant of contact that dictates how much injury a punch is likely to cause, not the follow through. Follow through might knock someone down, but fast strikes will cause injury/concussion and win the fight. I learned this the very hard way, but I wasn't well at the time, so I can forgive myself. Some martial arts styles specifically train to not follow through on strikes, to not waste energy, because pushing on your opponent doesn't hurt them much, it just looks good.

So, verdict of folks? Do you think flails are silly and need to be a tiny niche thing in fantasy instead of core material?



  • DreadKhanDreadKhan Member Posts: 3,859
    Was it my granite block flail? She can be pretty obstinate, and actually exists and is very heavy.

  • Humanoid_TaifunHumanoid_Taifun Member Posts: 1,041
    First of all, when an object actually bounces off, then the energy transferred is actually doubled - first the kinetic energy it has in the approach plus the kinetic energy that it has as it is leaving.
    As you can see with Newton's cradle, when just 100% of the energy is transferred, no bouncing occurs.

    Secondly, I do not know what combat with flails would actually look like. I have some ideas, but they seem very bad. Somebody should experiment on how flails interact with shields, because I think therein lies the answer. The ability of the flail to not just get around the shield, but actually attack its backside (and possibly even the hand holding it) is probably decisive. Whether that means that flails cannot compete on a medieval battlefield or that they do excellently under specific circumstances though, I cannot say.

    Lastly I need to point out that with weapons like axes or maces (or most weapons, really), you do not really want to perform big swings. You cannot afford to waste so much time while your opponent is trying to kill you.

  • semiticgoddesssemiticgoddess Member Posts: 14,833
    It seems that, while flails could get around shields, a lot of the energy would be lost as the chain whipped around the shield's edge. Worse yet, most of that energy would be applied on the chain itself, the weakest part of the flail. You could get around a shield, but the weight at the end of the flail would only be moving at a fraction of its normal speed when it hit your opponent on the back or whatever, and it would risk breaking the chain. Plus, it would briefly get your flail stuck on your opponent's shield and prevent you from backing off, giving your opponent an opportunity to rush in and stab you. You couldn't land another hit until the flail had disentangled itself from the enemy's shield.

    I think the basic issue is that the flail's superior power depends on the chain being perfectly taut, and on impact, that tautness vanishes, and it takes extra time to wind it up again, giving your opponent opportunities to attack. Once the flail goes limp, you can't use it either to defend or to attack until you wind it up. If you don't kill your opponent, it takes less time to reposition with a sword or a club than a flail.

    Slings operate on the same principles--you extend the arc of the weapon to increase the potential speed of the weight at the tip--but since they're ranged weapons, the disadvantages of a floppy weapon disappear, which I think is why slings were frequently in use and flails were fairly rare. Whether it's a whip or a sling or a trebuchet, arc-extending weapons are more effective primarily when you don't have somebody trying to rush in and stab you.

  • KamigoroshiKamigoroshi Member Posts: 5,876
    Flails were like the yo-yo's of the middle age: hype at one point, a flop at another. Still, it could be worse... at least they're not swords. :p

  • JoenSoJoenSo Member Posts: 910
    Flails - when wild magic just ain't dangerously unpredictable enough for you anymore

  • sarevok57sarevok57 Member Posts: 5,811
    i think in general flails are a terrible weapon because they use a terrible device: the chain

    although chains look and sound cool and people think they are so sturdy and strong, the reality is that chain is terrible ( or at least in rigging practices hence the reason why we don't use them on commercial sites )

    the problem with chain is, it's only as strong as it's weakest point, and once that point breaks, your flail is no more and now you more or less have an improvised club left over

    perhaps instead of chain, you could use a wire rope instead, way stronger and way more reliable plus as semiticgod was talking about earlier, a wire rope would be more taut helping to keep power in the swing

    now that i think of it though, a flail wouldn't necessarily be used for dealing damage but do more "crowd control" type effects, you were talking about that super long chained flail and that give me the idea that instead of taking out one foe, you could trip multiple foes at once with it and knock them prone and then have other members of your squad come in and take out the prone baddies

    now in practice if you want to take maximum effect from the flail you could hammer throw style swing it at an enemy, especially if you got some good swing, it would be a devastating hit, but who is going to let you charge up for a couple of rounds to do so?

    on the flip side speaking about hammer throw, that may be an option for a mid range type weapon, where you could hammer throw flails into an armor ( although in all honesty bow and arrows are better ) but when worse comes to worse, and strong wielder could hammer throw that flail 50-100 ft, and that is something you don't want to get hit by

    the only practical time perhaps to use this is to help spread out ranks of the opposition, seems to me when armies use precision type weapons, nobody tries to move out of the way, but if you were throwing flails at ranks, the ranks could see it and the opposition would have groups move out of the way to not get hit by it, although accuracy would be extremely difficult

    but other than that, realistically the only time it would make sense having this is if you were a giant and you were literally sweeping your enemies with one

  • WarChiefZekeWarChiefZeke Member Posts: 2,625
    edited March 2019
    I can see a flail having some limited utility on horseback against footsoldiers, where you have the freedom of movement to wind up your swing a bit and the sweeping motion of the chain gives a wide arc with less need for accuracy. A decent weapon to keep enemies at bay.

    In fact, the few historical art pieces that depict flails often depict them on mounted soldiers.

  • DreadKhanDreadKhan Member Posts: 3,859
    @semiticgod A flail with a longer handle, which seems to be what most of the ones actually used had, could be used to strike literally around a shield without the chain getting too close to the shield, since it can strike from weird angles. In my experience, a proper 'attack' with a flail is not much more than a flick of the wrists and a small movement of the arms, it's actually possible that it could be quite agile, and quick to strike, since you don't need to use your entire arm/shoulder to complete the swing, and this uses the 'stop' thing I was mentioning, since you just give the flail a jolt of energy to swing the chains. It is key that the weight be pretty small, but this isn't a really a big disadvantage because of the other mechanical advantages a flail can give. Now, you CAN do a swing with your shoulder's too, and it'll probably be even harder, but this isn't how you're going to normally swing, and this could make it effectively quicker to strike. To clarify, I think the correct use of a flail is more of a rotation rather than a visible swing. From personal experience, you can generate a surprising amount of force with a 2 ft chain and a 1lb weight, which is plenty big actually. I could see it destroying a hand, or concussing through a helm, and if it has spikes, which most had some, it'd actually puncture armour reliably I'd expect.

    Regarding breaking the chain, I suppose it could happen in theory, but you'd break a wooden shield long before you'd damage a steel chain I think. Chains are forged, and would even in medieval periods have few if any flaws normally, so they'd be low on weak points. Now, I will admit a lighter chain is a mechanical advantage, but most flails don't have dainty chains from what I've seen.

    If the chain got stuck and you were using a 1 handed flail, this would be a 'drop the flail' moment for sure, which is why people usually carried a side-arm. The flail getting stuck would be more likely with a weapon I think though, as in, the chain won't tangle easily with a shield, but could if it was long enough wrap around a weapon, but even this is really a momentary thing, as in you get 1 or 2 sharp tugs if you've got good reflexes to pull the other guy off balance or disarm him before your flail would get unstuck, unless you are using a very spikey flail, which I don't really think is needed. Spikes can definitely get stuck in a shield, and I've heard some theories that flails were used in part by armoured warriors for exactly this purpose, to render an opponent's shield unusable by getting a few pounds of flail stuck to it and just drawing a new weapon. I dunno how I feel about this, since I can't really see drawing a sidearm being instantaneous by any means, but supposedly there is some basis to this idea.

    As I understand it, even for a sling you typically don't need to whirl it around, it only goes around once and is essentially as fast as you'd need it to be, while still having good enough control for accuracy. Apparently you don't need to whirl a sling around, and apparently you shouldn't, despite this being how it's normally portrayed, since most people assume it'd be a slow transfer of energy, but more force on the sling/flail, the faster it swings, the less time needed in rotation. I'm no expert on slinging though, not even on par with my limited knowledge of flails! Anyways, I don't think a flail requires any wind up, and you're much more likely to accidentally hit yourself if you're, erm, 'flailing away' and building up momentum. If a small motion is enough to transfer dangerous force, why go past that? It's like stabbing someone with a spear; After the widest point of the spear head has passed through, any further force is superfluous, and is usually undesirable.

  • Balrog99Balrog99 Member Posts: 7,163
    When flails are discussed it always reminds me of the Drizzt books I read years ago. Specifically, Athrogate and his dual-wielding flails (morningstars with chains is how they're described - but essentially flails). It always amazed me how Salvatore described Athrogate's fighting style considering how clumsy I thought flails looked as weapons.

    Do flails have to have multiple heads to not be considered 'morningstars' or is it just semantics?

  • DJKajuruDJKajuru Member Posts: 3,299
    There's a Joan of Arc movie (the one starred by Milla Jovovich and directed by Luc Besson) where, during a battle scene, one of the soldiers dual wields flails , ir looked pretty cool and deadly!

  • Humanoid_TaifunHumanoid_Taifun Member Posts: 1,041
    Flails are really the European nun-chucks.

  • DrHappyAngryDrHappyAngry Member Posts: 1,577
    edited March 2019
    Flails weren't just the ball and chain, they were popular during peasant uprisings, because you could fashion one out of something round and heavy attached to a wooden handle, generally with rope or leather. Given that these were people without access to real weapons, and it was whatever they could slap together, their usage makes a lot of sense there. Very much like nunchaku in the Eastern Asia.

    As @DreadKhan said they were crap for formation fighting, since they took a lot of room to swing around, but could work well during the smaller skirmishes and sorties that made up most of medieval warfare in western Europe.

    Some of the reasoning for using them, is the same as the D&D cleric not being allowed to use a bladed weapon. The old school D&D cleric was influenced by Odo of Bayeux (William the conqueror's brother and Bishop of Bayeux).
    While not wielding a flail, he does use a blunt weapon to avoid shedding blood. That sort of reasoning was always funny with me, I mean if you brain somebody with a morningstar, blood's going to spill ;)

    You also have to keep in mind, there was a lot of incentive to keep medieval fighting non-lethal. If you could get a knight to surrender, you could take his armor, weapons and horse, which were worth a small fortune in of themself, and then ransom the knight back for even more money. With heavy padding from a gambeson, this sort of fighting might not be lethal. Of course if you hit somebody upside the head with a full flail impact, it'd probably kill them, but you could try to break limbs or other bones.

    Post edited by DrHappyAngry on
  • shabadooshabadoo Member Posts: 312
    No! You cannot reason with a flail! They are unreasonable.

  • ElysianEchoesElysianEchoes Member Posts: 475
    Didn't Sauron use a flail? That thing killed lots...

  • BelgarathMTHBelgarathMTH Member Posts: 5,639
    I believe the flail was originally a wheat threshing implement for farming. Apparently, the chain and the multiple head spread the blunt force out in a way that makes it faster and more efficient to thresh raw wheat. It became a weapon when used as such by farmers and peasants during revolts against steel-clad king's and emperor's men with their steel weapons.

    It would have been a highly *ineffective* weapon against such superior force and technology. But, sometimes, through sheer numbers and desperate rage, the farmers could have won some battles. (While rarely if ever the war.)

    Most of the martial arts in the east and the west, with their reliance on unarmed combat and combat with only the most rudimentary of weapons (sticks, staves, scythes, and flails/nunchucks) arose as attempts by the "have-nots" of history to fight effectively in revolution against the "haves."

    No sane person would choose "stone knives and bearskins" against "phasers" if they actually had a choice. There is great heroism and honor in actually defeating the advanced technology and martial weaponry and armor with the "stone knives and bearskins", which has actually happened historically with ingenious planning, tactics, and bravery on the part of some rare historical factions of the "have-nots", but it is a very, VERY rare thing for that to happen.

    The defeat of the mighty technological empire by "primitive weaponry and armor" is a trope of the heroic tale from Homer's Odyssey all the way to Jung's archetypes, Joseph Campbell's "Hero of a Thousand Faces", to Star Wars.

    And as such, it has a very near and dear place in all our hearts, to those of us who love high fantasy, epic and heroic, games, books, movies, tv shows, and all stories and myths.

    But, if we're really going to "get real", all the defense of slings, flails, clubs, and the like, amount to defense of "stone knives and bear skins" against "phasers."

    A flail is scientifically, mathematically, empirically demonstrably, not capable of delivering the blunt force that a mace, club, or hammer can deliver.

    A sling is scientifically, mathematically, empirically demonstrably, not capable of delivering the blunt, and especially piercing force, of a bow and arrow, crossbow and bolt, and most especially not of a gun and bullet. (That last pretty much trumps *everything* else that came before it in history, effectively rendering all armor and martial weaponry obsolete and moot.)

  • DrHappyAngryDrHappyAngry Member Posts: 1,577
    The defeat of the mighty technological empire by "primitive weaponry and armor" is a trope of the heroic tale from Homer's Odyssey all the way to Jung's archetypes, Joseph Campbell's "Hero of a Thousand Faces", to Star Wars.
    Sorry, but where in the Odyssey did that happen? Sure there were times Odysseus had to make due with what he had, but I can't think of a low tech army or group defending against a technologically superior foe in it.

  • BelgarathMTHBelgarathMTH Member Posts: 5,639
    @DrHappyAngry , sorry, I probably went back a little too far and was careless in making my point. Odysseus and his crew often had to fight much more powerful monsters and entities against seemingly impossible odds, but you're right, they don't necessarily fit the exact trope I was referencing.

  • Balrog99Balrog99 Member Posts: 7,163
    edited April 2019
    @DrHappyAngry , sorry, I probably went back a little too far and was careless in making my point. Odysseus and his crew often had to fight much more powerful monsters and entities against seemingly impossible odds, but you're right, they don't necessarily fit the exact trope I was referencing.

    That seems more like the Ewoks vs the Imperial Army. That's the very reason I thought Return of the Jedi was ridiculous! At least in Avatar the 'primitives' were larger, more powerful, had access to some technology and there were strategic areas where technology (specifically radar and infra-red) didn't work. It's weird that the 'superior' technological force didn't use drones but maybe remote-control didn't work in those areas either...

  • BelgarathMTHBelgarathMTH Member Posts: 5,639
    Balrog99 wrote: »
    @DrHappyAngry , sorry, I probably went back a little too far and was careless in making my point. Odysseus and his crew often had to fight much more powerful monsters and entities against seemingly impossible odds, but you're right, they don't necessarily fit the exact trope I was referencing.

    That seems more like the Ewoks vs the Imperial Army. That's the very reason I thought Return of the Jedi was ridiculous! At least in Avatar the 'primitives' were larger, more powerful, had access to some technology and there were strategic areas where technology (specifically radar and infra-red) didn't work. It's weird that the 'superior' technological force didn't use drones but maybe remote-control didn't work in those areas either...

    Which all actually supports my original point. Flails are on my list of what I call "bull**** weapons", along with dual wielding. They make for fun and aesthetically pleasing fantasy, which is just that, fantasy. In real life, farmers armed with flails are never going to defeat trained armies armed with swords, and a medieval army of knights armed with swords is never going to beat a modern western army armed with machine guns and tanks.

    I started to become aware of all this when I watched some Lindy Beige videos, and now Shadiversity. I can't bring myself to dual wield in any games any more, or use flails, because they ruin my suspension of disbelief and immersion in the game. If I want to use the Flail of Ages in BG2, I have to pretend it's a spiked mace or morning star. Which is hard for me to do, with the animation of the thing's heads clearly swinging around on those ridiculous force-dispersing chains.

  • Humanoid_TaifunHumanoid_Taifun Member Posts: 1,041
    @BelgarathMTH Dualwielding was very much real, though it looked very different from how it is depicted in modern fiction.
    The most obvious example is of course rapier + dagger. Similarly, saber + pistol was popular with officers.
    But even in the times of "real" swords, dualwielding was done. Generally you had one offensive weapon and one defensive weapon (even if they were both of the same kind and size). Neither Lindybeige nor Shadiversity disagree with this, from what I know.
    But for real first-hand information on medieval weaponry, you would be better served listening to scholagladiatoria, who is a longsword instructor and actually knows what he is talking about.

  • BelgarathMTHBelgarathMTH Member Posts: 5,639
    My problem with dual wielding is that it's not done realistically in games. People are always dual-wielding flails, or dual-wielding huge longswords. At which point, if it's a Let's Play I'm watching, I roll my eyes and stop watching it.

  • Humanoid_TaifunHumanoid_Taifun Member Posts: 1,041
    What DnD considers "longswords" is really just arming swords. But yes, I see your point. Dualwielding slow weapons is stupid.

  • DrHappyAngryDrHappyAngry Member Posts: 1,577
    You think dual wielding melee weapons is depicted badly, but the way movies and games depict dual wielding guns is insane. Your eyes do not work like that, and you cannot use 2 different sights at the same time. If you tried to dual wield guns, you wouldn't be able to hit anything more than a few feet away. Even the old cowboys that had a pistol on each hip wouldn't try to fire them both at the same time, it was purely because they could empty one gun and then switch to the other without reloading that they carried 2 guns. PoE 2 is literally the only game I've seen that depicted dual wielding pistols anything like how it was actually done.

    Also there were successful peasant uprisings. They brought down the Sui dynasty in China, and there were successful revolts in the later Roman empire. There were even ones in Germany and Catalan during the later middle ages that got what they wanted. You could also view what happened in Haiti as a peasant (slave) revolt. It's literally the only time in history we know of where a group of slaves managed to rebel and start governing themselves and their land without being taken over. A lot of the uprisings weren't trying to overthrow the government, they just wanted better conditions or unfair taxes removed.

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