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Whips are ancient tools that have been around for millennia. They were originally made to direct livestock and later on they were used to punish soldiers, slaves, and criminals. On the surface, a whip would seem like a great weapon for medieval combat. It has a long range, light weight, can be easily used with one hand, and is flexible allowing it to reach past shields. Whips also cannot be parried.

However, there are three good reasons why no warrior brings a whip to a battlefield as their primary weapon.

  1. Unlike every other melee weapon, a whip is useless at point-blank range. A whip only deals damage if it is fully extended and hits with the tip. The rest of the whip isn't damaging and you need a lot of space in order for a full extension to happen. Other big polearms are also unwieldy at targets centimeters away but at least the wielders of those can simply step back or half-hand their weapon and get some good use out of it. No such luck for whip wielders.

  2. Whips has zero penetrating capability. There is a reason why people getting whipped as punishment have their clothes taken off first. Clothing is really good at absorbing the damage done by a whip. Even the lightest and thinnest of armors would block all the damage a whip would do. A person in a coat or heavy jacket would also be immune to whips if they get hit in the torso. Heck, even a t-shirt and overshirt would block most of the pain a whip could deal. If a whip doesn't strike bare skin, it is just an annoying weapon at best instead of a debilitating one.

  3. Whips just aren't efficient ways to kill people. A person can get hit with a whip 50 times and survive. They would be bleeding and in severe pain but they could still easily live. If a person was stabbed with a sword or punctured with a spear 50 times or even a dozen times, they would almost certainly be dead. You need many attacks with a whip to deal lethal damage. Your opponent won't stand still and give you many opportunities to hit them.

In my world, guards of the fountain of youth carry enchanted whips along with shields. These whips are not only reinforced to allow for swinging and disarming but also turn the whips into deadly weapons by electrocuting the targets. Electricity can make the entire non-handle part of the whip deadly, shock people through armor, and be immediately lethal to people. The one new problem would be how to prevent the guards from shocking themselves with the whips? A solution I'm thinking is have the guards be able to turn the electric enchantment on and off like a mental switch. The guards would have to electrify the whips mid-attack and be careful to turn the electricity off before the whip snaps back to them.

So how would an electric whip compare to other medieval weapons like swords, spears, maces, hammers, axes, etc. Would the whips be effective against armored knights wielding typical medieval weapons?

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    $\begingroup$ Wearing simple padded armor might be a good defence against electrocution. Feels like a hooked polearm might be a more suitable weapon, if not one quite as flamboyant. $\endgroup$ Aug 2, 2022 at 17:29
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    $\begingroup$ Weapons are evaluated within a specific context. That context is highly variable. The best weapon for a 14th century German peasant will be different than a 12th century German peasant. Without providing a specific context this question is too broad. Similarly you ask us to compare your weapon to every weapon, that's a lot of different assessments. Then you also ask us to evaluate how it would fair when fighting against armored opponents. That's far too many questions for one post. $\endgroup$
    – sphennings
    Aug 2, 2022 at 17:30
  • $\begingroup$ A weapon you can't control in a melee, sounds like a great way to electrocute yourself. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 2, 2022 at 21:35
  • $\begingroup$ Check out what a faraday cage is. Whether or not your armored guy is wearing padding, the electricity has no business flowing through a poorly conductive human, when it has a direct highly-conductive path to the ground through your metallic armor. Almost all current will go through the armor, not through the guy. If you have enough time, you can try cooking him to death through resistive heating, but that's about all $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2022 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ By reading, there seems to be two issues at once : First, is it really efficient? Then, because it is written as a question : How can you protect the wielder? In any case, a bit of usage context could help : When I read "guards", I think cities, with possible crowd casualties, unarmored thieves, etc., the fountain of youth" make me think they defend a sacred place, possibly with lots of space to move a whip around. But is my imagination actually correct? I can't know alone... $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2022 at 8:09

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The Historic Martial Arts / Physicist Take

I practice and study medieval manuscripts detailing how to use weapons, in a hobbyist capacity. Medieval masters of weapons, like Fiori, Lichtenauer, and others wrote books/manuscripts all about how to use weapons. They were mostly for the nobility, but it provides a lot of insight to us. (Also, it ruins most fantasy games and movies. It's the curse of knowledge!)

I am also a physicist and therefore think I know more about electricity than the average bear. Both of these make me qualified to answer this, I think.

The Whip Has a Purpose

And that is to get an unarmored creature to move under threat of pain. That's it. You want your horse/ox/mule/goat/sheep to move away from the painful and loud thing without permanent harm.

Yes, whips can hurt, but you are not going to reliably break bones or kill. Certainly not in the same way that a knife, axe, or spear does. It is not a weapon of war and it is only meant to be intimidating!

Armor Considerations

Whips, in spite of the potentially loud noise, actually do little damage. Armor is meant to protect against much more force and much sharper things and was very common in the medieval period. This armor could be full plate armor, chainmail, aketon/gambeson, or even a padded jack (similar to a modern "thick winter coat"). All of these would work to negate damage from a whip.

Shields, especially large ones which were very common throughout the Medieval period, will also be very effective protection from whips. Even worse, they allow a combatant to move through a whip strike and get the whip-wielder into distance of their own weapon. This can be anything from a pavase, round center-grip shields, kite shields, scutum (technically from an earlier age), and anything larger than a buckler. Even vikings, who would frequently went without armor to maximize their mobility, carried shields!

I should note that melee combatants would frequently leave visors open, sometimes removing them entirely. This does make a vulnerability, but I am unsure how well a whip could hit this. Especially against an opponent who is not holding still and actively trying to stay either out of range or move in too close for whips to be effective.

What about electricity?

It depends on what path the current takes. It was common practice to wear thick cloth jackets under most metal armors, including chainmail and plate. The reasons were twofold: both for comfort (chafing!) and to provide some cushioning from impact.

This component of armor is a nearly whole-body, nonconductive barrier! So a charged whip striking an armored person is likely to not actually shock them. It is more likely to follow the metal armor (or not shock at all), due to the insulation provided by the padding.

The exception here would be if the return path for the whip's charge goes through the ground. In which case the whip wielders are going to risk electrocution, too! The whip will, I assume, build charge over time and release charge... Somehow? Maybe when the whip touches the ground, maybe with the press of a button, maybe through magic, but in any case, these measures need to withstand damage to the whip itself without shocking the user.

It could be very intimating, though. Certainly enough to give an inexperienced adventurer pause. It's a gamble, trading damage and combat effectiveness for fear and theatrics.

But the Enhancements!

Even with proposed enhancements, a whip can be countered by throwing a stick in the whip path and tangling it up. With an un-whip-like distribution of mass, this makes the whip behave in decidedly non-whip ways.

This is also ignoring the obvious counter: ranged weapons. Throwing stones, slings, javelins, and war darts can give a primarily melee combatant time to close. Nevermind the prevalent use of bows and crossbows! Some weapons were meant to be distractions for people receiving a charge!

Let's also not forget the lance. A favorite of knights, this could simply out-reach or tangled up a whip.

TL:DR No

Whips are bad weapons for doing harm, great for non lethal intimidation. Most armor negates the little damage that a whip can do. Electrifying them in introduces yet more problems, including those for the wielder. Counters are too numerous and widely available to nearly any fighter in the medieval period.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good post, although would a simple gambeson really make a person immune to electricity? Looking on google images, it seems like padded armor doesn't generally extend below the knee making it a vulnerable area to an electric whip user. Metal helmets also don't seem to be padded which makes it a potential whip target. $\endgroup$
    – ITM_Coder
    Aug 2, 2022 at 19:39
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    $\begingroup$ @itm_coder the thing about metal helmets is that they cover the padding on the inside. In fact, they usually have a harness on the inside like you see on the modern construction helmets. Otherwise, a cloth cap was usually worn. You see it in art sometimes, too! $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Aug 2, 2022 at 20:11
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    $\begingroup$ Even today, blue jeans (cotton canvas pants) are sufficient to protect against taser weapons. That is why they have a 60% failure rate when deployed by police officers. Unless the weapon system is using the wielder and ground as part of its circuit (think of that - a weapon that knocks out its wielder every time, whether or not it knocks out the target), the electrical contacts on a whip might create electrical burns on bare flesh, but would either short out the weapon on metal armor or have no effect otherwise. $\endgroup$
    – pojo-guy
    Aug 2, 2022 at 21:15
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    $\begingroup$ @SeanOConnor many HEMA clubs where I live usually offer a short introduction course (approx 6 weeks, 1-2 two hour sessions a week). That will do more to inform the curious layman about armed medieval fighting than any book! Check out this finder: hemaalliance.com/club-finders $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Aug 3, 2022 at 14:17
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    $\begingroup$ @SeanOConnor also, if you cannot wait, try watching the YouTube channels of scholagladiatoria, lindybiege, shadaversity, and skallagrim. They form some cornerstones of the HEMA YouTube community and usually make points that track with my experience. $\endgroup$
    – PipperChip
    Aug 3, 2022 at 15:13
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You're better off with a knife.

You're not focusing on the biggest deficiency of the whip: It's wind up. Imagine a musket with shorter range, a minimum range, is more difficult to aim, and is weaker than a knife, which you can only load just before you shoot.

It doesn't matter how deadly your weapon is if you never get a chance to use it. You also can't use it around your allies due to the large wind up area.

Your guards would be better off even if they were carrying knives.

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It's effectiveness is nil if people know the weapon and have a counter. Anything from a padded outfit and gloves to just shooting them, or throwing a knife or javelin.

Even a spear would be better.

Whips aren't a fighting weapon, they're a tool for punishment, They can't parry or defend against a weapon. Miss your strike and it's all over. What you're basically talking about is how stun guns are used against unarmed civilians, not trained assassins or soldiers.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Shooting them"? This is a medieval fantasy. There are no guns unless you are talking about ranged attacks with knives or bows. No melee weapon can defend against that, that is what shields are for. The electric whips aren't supposed to be unstoppable, the whips are supposed to be a viable alternative to a spear or axe in combat. $\endgroup$
    – ITM_Coder
    Aug 2, 2022 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ @ITM_Coder Whips aren't a viable alternative for those. You are better off with a knife. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 2, 2022 at 19:57
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    $\begingroup$ "Even a spear would be better." Not an appropriate statement. Spears are amazing weapons. Literally top dog for thousands of years even after guns were invented, and even then they stuck around a good long while as bayonets even up until WW2. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 2, 2022 at 20:13
  • $\begingroup$ @DKNguyen, sure, a spear is a great weapon, but in this particular situation I'd prefer a crossbow or better still a sling. Why risk a hit? $\endgroup$
    – Kilisi
    Aug 2, 2022 at 20:19
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    $\begingroup$ @Kilisi Hmmm so it does. In which case the question seems a bit confused between the mentions of primary battlefield weapons and guards. $\endgroup$
    – DKNguyen
    Aug 3, 2022 at 0:49
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I love the idea of magic electric whips!

/ The one new problem would be how to prevent the guards from shocking themselves with the whips/

No! Your guards shock themselves all the time! They might prefer a truncheon or something but the whips are the only weapon you have given them. Their only other option is hand to hand but these guards mostly spend their time playing cards; they have no martial arts skills and are in pretty poor physical shape. So it is the whips, and the shocking.

Sometimes when the guard shocks himself he just screams and curses. Occasoinally a good solid shock will straighten out the legs and the shocked guard will throw himself some distance. A guard might flip around getting shocked while he tries to turn off the whip. All that is true when the whips are used offensively or on prisoners too. The other guards always think this is hilarious. Sometimes they will prank shock each other on purpose. It keeps them awake on duty for sure.

Ultimately the whips are pretty tricky but the guards have come to love them and your readers will too.

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  • $\begingroup$ Actually, if leather/padded armor protects against the whips but metal armor doesn't; that would give the guards an advantage their opponents might not have. They just cover themselves head to toe in insulating armor and they can be shock-free while their opponents get electrocuted. $\endgroup$
    – ITM_Coder
    Aug 3, 2022 at 5:35
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    $\begingroup$ @ITM_Coder a metal armor acts as a Faraday cage and does protect you from being shocked $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2022 at 9:01
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Ultimately, inferior

There are simply too many weaknesses to be overcome. If the whips are electrical, they can kill if and only if they make contact with the targets. If the target is using, say a wooden shield, it does not work. If the target is using a spear with a wooden half, it doesn't work. If there are multiple enemies and the attacker wraps the whip around one opponent, they're stuck dealing with them and at the mercy of anything else. If the opponent is on horseback, the whip might kill the charging horse, but the momentum will keep the horse forward. Not to mention that it won't do anything about arrows.

Electrifying the whip to improve the lethality helps, but conventional weapons have already been designed to be very, very deadly; and that's a serious hurdle to overcome.

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