Flail (weapon)

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This article is about the weapon. For other uses, see Flail (disambiguation).
Spiked versions of long-handled peasant flails. From Paulus Hector Mair's combat manual Arte De Athletica

The term flail refers to two different weapons: a long, two-handed infantry weapon with a cylindrical head, and a shorter weapon with a round metal striking head. The defining characteristic of both is that they involve a separate striking head attached to a handle by a flexible rope, strap, or chain. The chief tactical virtue of the flail was its capacity to defeat a defender's shield or avoid it entirely. Its chief liability was a lack of precision and the difficulty of using it in close combat, or closely ranked formations.

The longer cylindrical-headed flail is a hand weapon derived from the agricultural tool of the same name, commonly used in threshing. It was primarily considered a peasant's weapon, and while not common, they were deployed in Germany and Central Europe in the later Late Middle Ages. The smaller, more spherical-headed flail appears to be even less common, but does appear in artwork from the 15th century onward.

The peasant flail[edit]

16th century peasant rebels

In the Late Middle Ages, a particular type of flail appears in several works being used as a weapon, which consists of a very long shaft with a hinged, roughly cylindrical striking end. In most cases these are two-handed agricultural flails, which were sometimes employed as an improvised weapon by peasant armies conscripted into military service or engaged in popular uprisings. For example, in the 1420-1497 period, the Hussites fielded large numbers of peasant foot soldiers armed with this type of flails.[1][2]

Some of these weapons featured anti-personnel studs or spikes embedded in the striking end, or are shown being used by armored knights,[3] suggesting they were made or at least modified specifically to be used as weapons. Such modified flails were used in the German Peasants' War in the early 16th century.[4][5] Several German martial arts manuals or Fechtbücher from the 15th, 16th and 17th century feature illustrations and lessons on how to use the peasant flail (with or without spikes) or how defend against it when attacked.[6][7][8][9]

The ball-and-chain flail[edit]

Modern reproduction of one-handed flail
Detail from Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes, painted by Piero della Francesca circa 1452, showing a short flail with three spherical striking ends
Detail from Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes, painted by Piero della Francesca circa 1452, showing a short flail with three spherical striking ends

The other type of European flail is a shorter weapon consisting of a wooden haft connected by a chain, rope, or leather to one or more roughly spherical striking ends. Modern works variously refer to this particular weapon as a "mace-and-chain" or "chain mace," and sometimes erroneously label them as simply a "mace" or morning star, terms which technically apply only to rigid weapons.

The haft is usually shown as approximately 1-4 feet long and the head can be a smooth metal sphere or a somewhat geometric shape, with some variants covered in spikes. The chain also varies, sometimes being no more than a few links to form a hinge, while others exceed the length of the haft and are over a meter long. Artwork from the 15th century to the early 17th century shows most of these weapons being wielded with two hands, but some are shown used in a single hand or with a haft too short to be used two-handed.

This type of flail appears to have been fairly uncommon when compared to other weapons used in Europe at the time, and is never shown being used by an entire unit of infantry. Study of the matter is further complicated by numerous 19th century forgeries that still sit in modern museums. For example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has three one-handed flails in its collections, but one of these has been recently re-evaluated as 'probably mid to late 19th century in [the] style of 16th century'.[10][11][12][13]

Variations outside of Europe[edit]

In Asia, short agricultural flails originally employed in threshing rice were adapted into weapons such as the nunchaku or three-section staff. Korea has a very similar weapon to the long-handled peasant flail called a pyeongon.[14][15][16] In Japan, there is also a version of the smaller ball-on-a-chain flail called a chigiriki.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the long-handled flail is found in use in India. An example held in the Pitt Rivers Museum has a wooden ball-shaped head studded with iron spikes. Another in the Royal Armouries collection has two spiked iron balls attached by separate chains.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Stephen Turnbull : The Hussite Wars 1419-36, Osprey MAA 409,2004
  2. ^ media:344Wagenburg der Hussiten.jpg media:Hussites massacre.jpg
  3. ^ Maximilian I. "Colored plate depicting knights fighting with two-handed flails.". Freydal. Retrieved 2016-01-19. 
  4. ^ Douglas Miller : Armies of the German Peasant's War 1524-26,Osprey MAA 384,2003
  5. ^ media:German Peasants War.jpg
  6. ^ Hans Talhoffer (circa 1450s). "Talhoffer Fechtbuch (MS 78.A.15) Folio 60r". wiktenauer.com. Retrieved 2016-02-01.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  7. ^ Hans Talhoffer (circa 1450s). "Talhoffer Fechtbuch (MS 78.A.15) Folio 60v". wiktenauer.com. Retrieved 2016-02-01.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. ^ Michael Hundt (1611). "Ein new Kůnstliches Fechtbuch im Rappier - Figure 88". wiktenauer.com. Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  9. ^ Jakob Sutor von Baden (1612). "New Kůnstliches Fechtbuch - Page 108". wiktenauer.com. Retrieved 2016-02-01. 
  10. ^ Nikolas Lloyd (1 December 2014). "'Morning Star' flails". YouTube. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  11. ^ "Military Flail | German | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". metmuseum.org. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  12. ^ "Military Flail | German | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". metmuseum.org. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  13. ^ "Military Flail | German | The Metropolitan Museum of Art". metmuseum.org. Retrieved 2015-02-24. 
  14. ^ "네이버 지식iN :: 지식과 내가 함께 커가는 곳". Kin.naver.com. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  15. ^ "네이버 지식백과". 100.naver.com. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 
  16. ^ "VOTE!". Dvdprime.donga.com. 2009-05-08. Retrieved 2012-12-18. 

External links[edit]