5e: Switching Weapons In Combat

Written by Phil

Phil was a world-traveler, writing, playing games, and exploring. Now he lives in Toronto and plays D&D, Root, and Terraforming Mars online. Most recently, he has been exploring the asymmetric games by Leder Games. Links to Other Writing: Persuasive Writing; Coffee Website.

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Sometimes in D&D 5e combat, you find that an equipped weapon isn’t having an effect. Perhaps you need a magical weapon or to change the damage type because of enemy resistances. The problem, however, is that there is some disagreement on how to switch weapons mid-fight. Can a Player Character (PC) change weapons during combat in 5e for free?

With no official rule for switching weapons, some DMs say that the free object interaction allowed in combat means either sheathing or drawing a weapon (PHB190). To quickly switch, players drop the equipped one and draw the other. Alternately, the free interaction can include the complete swap.

Though, like most things in DnD, there are arguments and discussions from various perspectives. Read on for more.

5e’s Action Economy

Let’s run through a scenario. 

Your party is navigating through the woods and enters a clearing. After a perception check, you see a small band of goblins preparing to charge at you from the opposite end of the clearing. Roll initiative.

In the first round of combat, characters can choose to do the following order of actions: 

  1. Draw their weapon, like a shortbow
  2. Use their movement
  3. Take the attack action to shoot an arrow (with the shortbow they drew in #1) as their action
  4. (Optional) Where applicable, you could use a bonus action

The above is just an example of how you can approach combat; you can mix and match the order of actions however you like.

On the second round of combat, an enemy goblin, who was 60ft away from a PC, is now 5ft away – in 5e terms, that means they’re directly in front of them. The player now has disadvantage on their next shortbow attack because an enemy is standing next to you, distracting you. 

No problem – that PC has a shortsword for such occasions. However, the DM is unsure if they can use their free object interaction to switch weapons.

A player only gets one free object interaction per round. The problem is in sheathing an already drawn weapon as the 1st free object interaction and then drawing another weapon as the 2nd object interaction.

Page 190 of the Player’s Handbook discusses free object interactions, stating: 

“The DM might require you to use an action for any of these activities when it needs special care or when it presents an unusual obstacle’.

Rephrased: It’s up to the DM whether switching their weapons requires special care or if it presents an unusual obstacle. 

Once again, an easy Rules-as-Written (RAW) workaround is to allow the player to drop their currently held weapon and use their free object interaction to draw their alternate one. 

Just remember where you left your bow when those pesky Goblins turn tail to flee!  


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Variant Rules

The DM could rule that drawing a weapon after sheathing another – or even dropping a held item – requires an action. 

This will prevent PCs from being able to attack on the same turn, slowing combat. If this is your ruling, it should also apply to enemies. 

To see if a PC can pull off a seamless sheath/draw combo, the DM might require a dexterity skill check to change weapons as part of the same free object interaction. 

While this may feel more immersive or grounded, it will add rolls to combat rounds, also slowing the flow of action.

Before using this variant, ask yourself if it serves your story’s narrative and if failure to pull off the maneuver will be received well by the table.

Another option is to simply allow for the sheathing and drawing of a weapon as part of the same free object interaction. While possibly less immersive, this ruling does allow for a more streamlined and smooth combat encounter

The only pitfall here is that players with access to the extra attack feature may possibly take advantage by making two attacks with different weapons – every round of combat. 

My personal house rule is that players (and enemies) can switch their weapons as a free object interaction at the start of their turn and then use that weapon for the rest of their turn.


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Complications

You have a PC with Two-Weapon Fighting features who wants to switch from a bow to two scimitars. Technically, in this scenario, that could be viewed as three object interaction – only one of which is free.

It is still up to the DM to determine if drawing two weapons is a free object interaction. If you allow the player to stow their bow or if they have to drop it to make their scimitar attacks on their turn.

Another situation: You have a spell caster who hasn’t taken the Warcaster feat and can’t cast spells that require somatic components while wielding a weapon or a shield. 

Do you allow them to drop their equipment, cast a spell, and then retrieve their gear as a free object interaction?

The rules’ intention is that it’s usually impossible for a caster to use spells while wielding weapons. Since the gear has been dropped and is on the ground, it could arguably require more than a free action to bend down and retrieve them.

However, allowing the spell caster to sheath their gear as a free object interaction and cast a spell would be well within the rules as written. However, they would not benefit from the +2 AC of their shield until they re-equip it. 

Summary

There is an endless number of complicated situations in Dungeons and Dragons. When in doubt, the DM always has the authority to make a ruling. 

The two main rulings:

  • Drawing and sheathing are both counted as full free actions, so they cannot be done on the same turn. To get around this, players must drop the weapon in their hand, and draw the alternate weapon.
  • Drawing and sheathing can both be done as a single free action.
  • Uncommon, third option: Drawing, Sheathing, or Dropping weapons – all count free actions. This will significantly slow the flow of combat.

Things to consider:

  • Multi-attack: some players may abuse the more lenient rules to attack with two different weapons every round. I fix this by allowing them to change weapons as a free action at the start of their turn only.
  • Dual Wielding: putting away one weapon and taking out two – will you allow this?
  • Magic-users (without the Warcaster feat): Can they drop their weapons, cast a spell, and pick them up again? I recommend against this (see above).

Just remember the Rule of Cool and try to make the table a fun and fair environment for all players. No one enjoys an extremely slow game where it takes hours just to trudge through mechanics!

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