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Shields take an action to "don", i.e. start to receive the benefit of the shield (2 AC for basic shields, other effects for magical shields).

Can you pick up a shield and hold it without "donning" it? If you could, I would expect you would not have to use an action to pick it up (free object interaction) but would also not get any benefit from the shield until you did use an action to "don" it.

The use case is that JC says shields are a valid target for disarming. In that case, the shield would drop to the ground, and the answer to this question would determine what the shield's owner could then do (if, for example, they did not want anyone else to get their shield but didn't have the time to use their Action on donning it again).

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    \$\begingroup\$ What makes you doubt that you can? \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Jul 3 '18 at 14:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Szega By the rules, shields are a type of armor, and in general you cannot wear armor without donning it. \$\endgroup\$ – Vigil Jul 3 '18 at 14:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you asking if you gain the benefits of AC if carrying but not wearing? Or simply if you can carry a shield without donning it? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Jul 3 '18 at 15:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch The latter - it is clear that to get the AC benefits you need to use an action to don. \$\endgroup\$ – Vigil Jul 3 '18 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but someone else could pick it up the same way, right? \$\endgroup\$ – Jason Goemaat Jul 4 '18 at 6:53
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Yes

A shield is an item. You can pick up an item without an action (Player's Handbook p.190).

Wielding a shield, not merely holding it, increases your Armor Class by 2 (Player's Handbook p.144). Donning a shield takes an action. (PHB p.146)

PHB p.146 says that armor must be donned to benefit from it.

If we wish to be exceptionally literal, p.144 says that armor and shields are separate things. A shield is carried in one hand. It must be wielded, and the dictionary definition of wield is "To handle with skill and ease, especially a weapon or tool". Given the descriptive text on p.144 that "Anyone can put on a suit of armor or strap a shield to an arm", we can most probably assume that shields are strapped to an arm, and that this is what takes an action, and that to don a shield in its proper fashion is necessary in order to handle it "with skill and ease". I think one could make a valiant stand to rules-lawyer that donning a shield isn't necessary doesn't do anything, but the meaning seems clear.

Either way, to don is to wear. You can pick up, hold or carry a shield without going to the additional effort of wearing it. No rule forbids you from merely picking up the shield the way you would pick up any other dropped item.

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You can pick it up without donning it

Many shield have straps to strap it to your arm, allowing you to take blows without the shield flying out of your hand. This is likely the justification for taking an Action to don it.

If you are not trying to don it, there's nothing stopping you from picking it up as a free item interaction to stop someone else from taking it if you had recently dropped it by being disarmed by another enemy.

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