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I've been reading a lot of questions and answers concerning the action economy ramifications of sheathing and unsheathing of weapons in combat. The unstated assumption in those posts is that the weapons in question are sheathable (or stowable) at all.

Normally, sheathing a weapon like a sword simply requires an object interaction. But what about weapons that don't have sheathes at all?

For example, is it possible to sheathe a long polearm like a spear or a halberd? What about ungainly weapons like a flail? Or what about a weapon that would require a significant time to sheathe, like a greatsword?

Are there any rules prescribed for sheathing weapons that are impossible or difficult to sheathe? If so, how long does it take (action, reaction, etc.)?

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    \$\begingroup\$ You seem to have some weird definition of "sheathing" that I don't understand. Yes, some weapons can't be sheathed -- at least not practically in the middle of combat. What is the purpose of the question? Maybe that will help figure out what your'e looking for. \$\endgroup\$ – Stephen R Dec 19 '19 at 21:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ First time I read the question as "unsheath-able", that is, able to be "unsheathed", not as "un-sheathable". \$\endgroup\$ – justhalf Dec 20 '19 at 6:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @justhalf that's a really funny observation, the English language is strange like that :P \$\endgroup\$ – Andrendire Dec 20 '19 at 17:03
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Realistically, weapons too large or unwieldy to sheathe were simply carried in-hand until they were used. Realistically, anyone wielding one had a sidearm sheathed on their hip, as well—which is what swords often were, something to carry when you couldn’t bring your weapon-of-war around, or if you lost that in a battle.

Also, just to be clear, people sheathed things at their hip larger than you might expect. We’re talking about polearms and only the very largest swords here. It’s not exactly clear what D&D means by “greatsword”—D&D gets the names of swords wrong constantly—but considering its lack of the reach property, it probably isn’t referring to the kind of sword that’s so large you can’t wear it at the hip (which was a very unusual and specialized weapon not used in most of history—we’re talking about basically a polearm made in a sword-shape, which makes it vastly more expensive and heavy than a polearm ought to be, so that kind of weapon was not very popular). Certainly, the swords that the real world called “greatswords” could be and commonly were sheathed at the hip.

D&D doesn’t really implement any of that, though. Back-up weapons are somewhat unusual, and for the most part consist of a back-up ranged weapon for a melee warrior or a back-up melee weapon for a ranged attacker. Due to the systems’ focus on specialization, and the importance (at higher levels) of magic weapons, switching to a back-up weapon can be close to surrendering. And since the system also doesn’t model the difficulties that very-large weapons have in close spaces, and few tables bother to object to adventurers casually carrying weapons of war around, it’s almost never used for sidearms.

And then we get to back sheathes. Hollywood and gaming has people strapping weapons, particularly big ones, to their backs all the time. You could be forgiven for thinking sheathes across the back were the norm. But historically, back sheathes all-but-didn’t exist. A lot of historians would tell you that they simply didn’t exist, and indeed it’s hard to contradict them with any solid evidence. In fact, even quivers across the back—while they did exist—were vastly less common than quivers at the hip, which I don’t think I have ever seen in a game or movie.

Also, for the record, assuming the same construction, a back sheath is limited to smaller weapons than a hip sheath. This contradicts typical representation, where back sheathes are used for larger weapons, but it’s simple mechanics: in order to clear the sheath, your hand holding the weapon has to be further from the sheath’s opening than the length of the weapon above your hand. For a sword at your hip, that is potentially the length across your torso plus the length of your arm—and yes, people did sheathe things that nearly large. If the sheath ends at your shoulder, then you are limited to the length of your arm—and even then, it’s really hard to unsheathe a weapon like that, and all-but-impossible to sheathe it again. If a weapon was ever strapped across the back, it was being transported, not readied for use.

But D&D isn’t set in our real world’s history. You can construct back sheathes differently from hip sheathes, so that they are functional with weapons of similar sizes (in short, a portion of the sheath cannot be a complete loop, but open on one side, so the blade can be slotted into it before sliding it down). You could probably even come up with something that works, more or less, for a polearm (though your typical polearm is somewhere around eight feet long, and they can be larger than that—at some point, no matter where you put it, it’s not going to work). Magic, obviously, can simply solve all of these problems.

And the society in D&D is vastly different from any found in our history—the very notion of adventurers as found in D&D isn’t found in history (Ireland’s fianna are the closest I’m aware of). Maybe in a world filled with monsters, it isn’t that weird to casually carry around a weapon of war, even in town. And certainly, in a world of magic weapons, it’s entirely plausible for warriors to stick with what would otherwise be a suboptimal weapon since that’s the one with magic on it. Tossing your polearm aside to draw your sidearm when the enemy gets close in is just sensible in reality—throwing away Gungnir, though, might not be so sensible.

Ultimately, the rules don’t really speculate on any of this. These are a lot of setting details, and a lot of it is going to be table-dependent—how simulationist a game do you want? How picky do you want to be with these details? All the rules have is “item interaction.” Which, really, seems to me a fair compromise—maybe it’s interesting for the game to have PCs sometimes not have their weapon in-hand while doing their dungeon-delving, and there ought to be something for it getting there when it’s time for dragon-slaying, rather than it just teleporting. So... item interaction. Done. You could implement more for your particular table if you wish (but at least some of the time that should realistically be “I don’t need to do anything at all, because I’ve been carrying this spear in my hand the whole time.”), but that’s up to your table.

But let me caution you on that: rules have costs. When you implement a new rule, you have to work it out, you have to write it down and edit it for clarify, you have to present it to the table and ensure everyone’s understanding of the rule, and then you have to devote game time to enforcing it. All games, by necessity, skip over some of the details of real life; this is known as abstraction. And the choice of abstraction is a very important design consideration for a game—and never a trivial one. There are always trade-offs. If you dramatically ratchet up the game’s simulation of sheathing and drawing weapons, you are deciding to make that a bigger, more important part of your game, that takes more of your time and attention than it currently does. That ultimately means less time and attention for other aspects of the game. You should think carefully about what the costs are likely to be with any changes you implement here. Consistency in abstraction, too, is important—if drawing and sheathing is so detailed, why aren’t other aspects of reality? Are you going to reduce the abstractions for everything, across the board? You’ll have a better simulation of reality, but that may very well come at the cost of having less of the fantasy that people play D&D for.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Wow--thanks for the considerable knowledge drop, that gives me a lot to think about. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrendire Dec 18 '19 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ worth dropping a mention of shadiversity who built a working back sheath for sword and axe, just to prove it could be made to work, specifically in reference to the possibility in a fantasy setting. youtube.com/watch?v=0EWi2DnDoaI \$\endgroup\$ – John Dec 18 '19 at 20:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Tsugihagi No, at the side. Opposite side from where you’d sheathe a sword, though—you want to reach across the body for a sword because that allows it to be longer and it makes you draw it into an effective guard position. Neither is a concern for an arrow, which you just want to get in place ASAP. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 19 '19 at 14:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Leliel If nothing else, letting the quiver go horizontal is a great way for all your arrows to accidentally spill out on the ground all the time. Even worse if you're riding on a horse or in a carriage, because your thigh would be in a position where this would happen far more often. (Just think of how much loose change you've found in your couch cushions.) \$\endgroup\$ – Darrel Hoffman Dec 19 '19 at 18:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Doval Plenty of swords—specifically heavy ones—required two hands, and could also be sheathed—in fact, that would accurately describe real-world “greatswords.” It was only the largest zweihänders that “acquired the characteristics of a polearm rather than a sword [and] was not carried in a sheath but across the shoulder like a halberd.” The only reason to bother with such a gigantic sword is for the reach, so greatswords without that aren’t those. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 19 '19 at 19:07
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Game Rules

Other than the properties from the weapon table (Light, Heavy, Loading, Special, etc.) there are no particular rules for weapon types. None of the available properties cover the relative difficulty of putting weapons away.

Practicality/Reality

Spears and polearms are usually not sheathed. They can both serve a secondary function as walking sticks out of combat, and in combat would simply be dropped if they couldn't be used. Of course, another thing D&D does not have rules for is using weapons in close-quarters that really shouldn't be used that way.

Historically, a flail is a pretty questionable weapon in the first place. That said, it'd be a simple matter to hang it from a hook on the belt, possibly with a more primitive version of a carabiner-like fixture or even a ring sheath for the handle.

Opinion

Before trying to make rules for such a thing, ask yourself this... Does it make the game more fun?

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    \$\begingroup\$ A possible solution for enforcing consistency could be that carrying a large, unwieldy weapon isn't quite the same as having that weapon ready to use in a meaningful way. So the spear-as-a-walking-stick is fine, but getting into stance and orienting the spear for a fight might take about as much time and effort as drawing a sword, for example. \$\endgroup\$ – Upper_Case Dec 18 '19 at 22:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I actually own a sheath for a one-handed flail. It's basically a leather tube; you put the flail in hinge-first, so the chain runs alongside the shaft and the grip and ball stick out the top. The flail is a cheapjack jobbie I bought at a con, and the sheath was commissioned from a friend of mine, so I'm sure neither one is remotely historically accurate. And of course it jostles against your side, so you'd want an additional guard plate if your spikes are needle-sharp for some reason. But you can draw it quick, and it should be good enough for a D&D character. \$\endgroup\$ – Phasma Felis Dec 19 '19 at 20:19
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Your confusion stems from a misunderstanding of the rules

The rules for interacting with objects states:

Here are a few examples of the sorts of thing you can do in tandem with your movement and action:

  • draw or sheathe a sword

There isn't actually any mention of other weapons at all, it only mentioned "a sword" which can be sheathed. This list isn't exhaustive in the first place. The DM is expected to make rulings about whether something qualifies for free interaction. This is highly circumstantial.

How does your character store their equipment? Whatever you answer, it's up to your DM to decide if it is free, an action, or more.

You cannot sheath a weapon if you do not have a sheath for it

The rules say that if you want to and can sheath a sword, then you can do it as free interaction.

If you have no sheath or you cannot otherwise sheath the weapon, then you can't sheath. It's like asking "how do I close a door that is already shut?" You can't.

Sheaths do exist for practically all blades

However I think you are being too narrow in your understand of sheaths. D&D style greatswords can certainly be sheathed. Spears and halberds can have sheaths to protect their blades (and protect people from their blades). Historically even the largest swords could have sheaths, but they often weren't practical.

While a flail by definition does not have a sheath, it may well have a storage pouch that it can be easily drawn from.

Not all sheaths can be reasonably belt mounted

Just because the weapon is sheathed, doesn't mean that you don't have to carry it. Your weapon still needs to be stowed. Some sheaths are attached to a belt, as is the norm with swords or knives. A spear could not fit into your belt, you need to carry it or stow it attached to your pack.

Pulling a spear from your pack and then unsheathing it would take free object interaction and an action.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Good point about sheathes for purposes other than freeing up your hands; D&D tends to use “sheathe” as a stand-in for “stow away so you have your hands free,” but of course you can cover any blade to prevent any accidental cutting or stabbing. That said, I don’t think it was the norm to do such a thing “in the field,” so to speak. Maybe if rain was a greater worry than attack? \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 19 '19 at 21:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan Well, what is "in the field"? An army marching would probably want to keep all the staby parts under wraps to prevent accidents. Realistically adventurers would probably want to do the same. The greatest difference is that adventurers fight a lot more frequently throughout the day. I would assume most adventurers would be concerned with keeping their gear clean and in good repair, which means travelling with everything stowed and sheathed, but when delving large weapons would be carried. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Dec 20 '19 at 1:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ That’s my point, I don’t think a marching army typically did wrap up polearms. That’s (part of) what all the drilling for marching in formation was for. I could easily be wrong about this—I haven’t looked into it—but that’s my impression. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Dec 20 '19 at 3:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I can't answer for all polearms, but I'm sure that even if the poorest didn't, they did exist, eg: commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Saya_(naginata) I'm sure soldiers had a tendency to have their weapons carried by cart rather than hand, which necessitates having something to cover the pointy bit. \$\endgroup\$ – gszavae Dec 20 '19 at 4:09
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I'm going to make an assumption here that "sheathe" simply means "stow in such a way that the weapon is carried and accessible." In that case, almost all weapons are able to be "sheathed." Swords, knives, and similar can be stuck in traditional sheathes (or boots, belts, etc.); hammers and flails can be hooked on the belt; bows can be slung over a shoulder; even a polearm or the ubiquitous 10 foot pole can be slung horizontally on the back.

Granted, apart from swords, knives, and the occasional hammer or club, most weapons aren't really made to be temporarily stowed. Historically speaking, fighters would use one weapon, and if forced to switch, would drop that weapon on the ground. If melee combat reached an archer, he would ditch his bow for a short sword or knife; an unhorsed knight would drop his lance to switch to a sword. There was simply no reason to "sheathe" any weapon until after the battle. Likewise, a stowed bow would be unstrung, and a stowed mace, club, even polearm was wrapped in cloth or leather and tied; it was rare to keep more than a sword or knife battle-ready. D&D is not, of course, historically accurate.

To stay within the rules, unless a weapon specifically disallows stowing/sheathing (or a spell or other effect prevents it), assume the rules for stowing a weapon can be applied to any weapon.

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