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There are a lot of questions on this site that rely on whether Improvised Weapons are actually melee Weapons or not. This affects many things such as dual wielding, weapon bonding, magic spells, monk martial arts, etc.

There is a table at PHB p149 which specifies melee weapons.
Improvised Weapons are defined at PHB p147.
Unarmed Strikes count as melee weapon attacks but are not melee weapons (PHB errata).

The 2nd paragraph of Improvised Weapons states:

In many cases, an improvised weapon is similar to an actual weapon and can be treated as such. For example, a table leg is akin to a club. At the DM’s option, a character proficient with a weapon can use a similar object as if it were that weapon and use his or her proficiency bonus.

I am not interested in these cases where you can treat it as a weapon because it resembles one (it should be fine to treat a table leg as a club or a pole as a quarterstaff). I am interested in cases like bows, arrows, shields, darts, crossbows, wagon wheels, and dead goblins, where they are clearly not designed to be melee weapons. When one of these is used for a melee attack, is it really a melee weapon? If it is a melee weapon, is it only considered a melee weapon for that attack or so long as you wield it?

Related questions:

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Improvised Weapons are not a subset of Melee or Ranged Weapons, but they are Weapons.

Let's begin with the identification of the Improvised Weapon as a Weapon (and not an object or Armor, or anything else). Jeremy Crawford supports this:

An improvised weapon is, indeed, a weapon, but only the moment it's used as such. A chair/shield/etc isn't a weapon otherwise.

What type of weapon is it? An Improvised Weapon

Chapter 5 of the PHB (page 149) contains a list of common Melee and Ranged Weapons. That is the list for things that require Melee Weapon or Ranged Weapon attacks. Existing items within the ruleset that are not listed here would likely not qualify, but items that are not listed which have similarities would (i.e. katana as longsword). A shield is not on the list, but is under Armor.

Whether or not Improvised Weapons are on the list is the exact question being asked here.

Jeremy Crawford takes a bit about the object vs process here:

In D&D, a weapon is an object. A weapon attack is a process. Sometimes the rules let you use nonweapons to engage in that process

An Improvised Weapon is neither a Melee Weapon nor a Ranged Weapon (from the list previously defined on page 165.) It is it's own category that can be found pages 147-8 in the PHB.

Type of Weapon is different from type of Attack

While you may make a Melee or Ranged Attack with one, it does not turn the Improvised Weapon into a Melee or Ranged Weapon. It is just a Melee or Ranged Attack that is made with an Improvised Weapon.

Crawford covers this in the following exchange:

A melee weapon attack is a melee attack with a weapon.

and the following exchange with a user (the first quote):

@Sebkha Not to be confused with: an attack with a melee weapon.

@JeremyECrawford That's correct, since an attack with a melee weapon can be a ranged attack if you throw it

Proficiency points the way towards a different Type than Melee/Ranged

If an Improvised Weapon is ALWAYS either a Simple or Martial Melee or Ranged weapon, then there would have been no need for this clarification on proficiency in the Improvised Weapons rules:

In many cases, an improvised weapon is similar to an actual weapon and can be treated as such. For example, a table leg is akin to a club. At the DM’s option, a character proficient with a weapon can use a similar object as if it were that weapon and use his or her proficiency bonus.

If it was a given that an Improvised Weapon was always a Simple or Martial Melee/Ranged weapon, then proficiency would always apply. In addition, the only way to gain proficiency in an Improvised Weapon is through the Tavern Brawler feat. This would be unnecessary if Improvised Weapons were classed as part of Melee/Ranged as your proficiency would already be granted if that was covered by your race/class.

Crawford discusses this a bit here:

A shield certainly isn't a weapon, but like many things, it can be used as an improvised weapon.

There is clearly a differentiation in Crawford's eye between Weapons and Improvised Weapons.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 6 '18 at 0:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Regarding "If it was a given that an [IW] was always ... then proficiency would always apply.": I do not see how this implies that IWs cannot be considered Melee/Ranged weapons. All that clarification is saying is that if the DM rules IW is close to actual weapon they can treat it as that weapon (including prof bonus). Since you can't be proficient in "melee weapons" or "ranged weapons" then an IW doesn't get prof by default even if it is treated as a generic melee/ranged weapon. Thus the clarification is needed and does not imply what you are suggesting it does. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Apr 6 '18 at 13:30
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An improvised weapon is an object that becomes a weapon only when you are attacking with it

The rules simply give no clear as to whether an object that is not a weapon is considered to be one when used as an Improvised Weapon. This is a rules gap since there is no way the text can tell us the answer. As such, it is appropriate that we look to Jeremy Crawford for clarification (via Twitter):

An improvised weapon is, indeed, a weapon, but only the moment it's used as such. A chair/shield/etc isn't a weapon otherwise.

So, when you attack with an object it is treated as an improvised weapon as specified by the PHB:

An improvised weapon includes any object you can wield in one or two hands, such as broken glass, a table leg, a frying pan, a wagon wheel, or a dead goblin.

As soon as the attack begins, the object is considered a weapon.

As soon as the attack completes is is no longer treated as a weapon.

An Improvised Weapon must be a Melee or Ranged weapon

Sometimes abilities require that something be a melee/ranged weapon to apply. Improvised weapons are already obviously weapons per the above, but the PHB specifies that all weapons must be either a Melee or Ranged weapon.

Every weapon is classified as either melee or ranged. A melee weapon is used to attack a target within 5 feet of you, whereas a ranged weapon is used to attack a target at a distance.

There is no reason to think that this does not apply to improvised weapons as well. Thus, that object becomes a melee or ranged weapon, depending on the nature of your attack.

Actual weapons can be used as Improvised Weapons as well

According to the PHB, using

a ranged weapon to make a melee attack, or throws a melee weapon that does not have the thrown property

is another way to get an improvised weapon.

In this case, the item was a weapon beforehand and is a weapon afterwards and is not affected by the discussion above. A ranged weapon being used as a melee weapon (or vice versa) goes back to being considered its original weapon type after the attack. It is never permanently considered the "improvised" weapon type.

Summary/Your Questions

Q: When one of these is used for a melee attack, is it really a melee weapon?

A: Yes, an Improvised Weapon that is used for a melee attack is considered to be a melee weapon.

Q: If it is a melee weapon, is it only considered a melee weapon for that attack or so long as you wield it?

A: Correct. As soon as the attack concludes, the Improvised Weapon ceases to be any kind of weapon and is treated simply as a generic object again.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 6 '18 at 0:29
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Yes Improvised Weapons used in melee are actually melee weapons

If they don't qualify as a weapon to start with then they are only weapons while the attack has been made.


Analysis

There are five basic things we need to unpack to answer this question:

  1. What is a weapon?
  2. What is a melee weapon?
  3. Are Improvised Weapons actually weapons?
  4. What is an Improvised Weapon?
  5. Can Improvised Weapons be melee weapons?

What is a weapon?

Objects specifically designated as weapons are obviously weapons and they are always weapons, even if they don't meet any other criteria in the basic definition.

This is an example of the Specific Beats General rule.

If a specific rule contradicts a general rule, the specific rule wins.

For all other objects we need some criteria to assess this. The PHB page 14 lays out the basic defintion of a weapon:

For each weapon your character wields, calculate the modifier you use when you attack with the weapon and the damage you deal when you hit.

When you make an attack with a weapon, you roll a d20 and add your proficiency bonus (but only if you are proficient with the weapon) and the appropriate ability modifier.

So for something to be a weapon there are three conditions that need to be met

  • You need to be able to wield it
  • You need to be able to attack with it (and the method for doing so is that you roll a d20 and add relevant modifiers)
  • It needs to cause damage when it hits

We can use this later on to help with determining if an improvised weapon is a weapon.

What is a melee weapon?

The PHB Page 146 gives us our definition to answer this:

Every weapon is classified as either melee or ranged. A melee weapon is used to attack a target within 5 feet of you, whereas a ranged weapon is used to attack a target at a distance.

So if it is a weapon, and it is used to attack a target within 5 feet of you, then for that attack it counts as a melee weapon.

Are Improvised Weapons actually weapons?

The PHB page 147 has a section on Improvised Weapons:

Sometimes characters don't have their weapons and have to attack with whatever is close at hand. An improvised weapon includes any object you can wield in one or two hands, such as broken glass, a table leg, a frying pan, a wagon wheel, or a dead goblin.

In many cases, an improvised weapon is similar to an actual weapon and can be treated as such.

...

An object that bears no resemblance to a weapon deals 1d4 damage (the DM assigns a damage type appropriate to the object). If a character uses a ranged weapon to make a melee attack, or throws a melee weapon that does not have the thrown property, it also deals 1d4 damage. An improvised thrown weapon has a normal range of 20 feet and a long range of 60 feet.

So lets apply our weapon criteria to this:

  • Can you wield it? Yes

    An improvised weapon includes any object you can wield in one or two hands

  • Can you attack with it? Yes

    Sometimes characters don't have their weapons and have to attack with whatever is close at hand.

  • Does it cause damage when it hits? Yes

Thus an improvised weapon is a weapon.

What is an improvised weapon?

PHB pages 147 - 148:

An improvised weapon includes any object you can wield

...

If a character uses a ranged weapon to make a melee attack, or throws a melee weapon that does not have the thrown property, it also deals 1d4 damage.

This passage gives us the definition:

  • Any object being used as a weapon which is not normally a weapon (which you can wield)
  • A melee weapon being used as a thrown weapon
  • A ranged weapon being used as a melee weapon

Can Improvised Weapons be melee weapons?

If an Improvised Weapon is being used as a weapon, and it is being used in melee combat, to make a melee attack, it is a melee weapon.

The PHB Page 146 gives us two definitions to answer this:

Every weapon is classified as either melee or ranged.

So once something is a weapon (even for a second) it is either a melee weapon or a ranged weapon.

A melee weapon is used to attack a target within 5 feet of you, whereas a ranged weapon is used to attack a target at a distance.

A melee weapon is defined by how it is used, so if you are using an Improvised Weapon to make a melee attack,it counts as a weapon for the attack, it is being used to make a melee attack, therefore it is a melee weapon for that attack.


Bonus Questions

Is an Improvised Weapon, to steal a phrase, Schroedinger's Weapon?

Or phrased another way, is an improvised weapon a weapon only when you attack with it?

Yes, provided it doesn't already count as a weapon prior to the attack

The act of attacking with it and having the potential to cause damage with it is what causes a non-weapon object to fit the criteria for a weapon and turns a non-weapon object into a weapon (for the attack). After that attack is over it reverts to being a non-weapon object.

The corrolary to this is if you are using a proper weapon for a purpose that it was not designed. It remains a weapon for the duration, but while the attack is occuring it is an Improvised Weapon.

PHB pages 147 - 148:

An improvised weapon includes any object you can wield

...

If a character uses a ranged weapon to make a melee attack, or throws a melee weapon that does not have the thrown property, it also deals 1d4 damage.

Do all weapons have to cause damage?

No

The Net entry in the PHB is aan example of a weapon that doesn't cause damage.

It is also a good example of the Specific Beats General rule.

The general rule is that a weapon has to have the ability to cause damage to be a weapon. The Net entry in the Weapons table creates an exception to this rule.

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