Last Updated on November 6, 2023
Instead of using a weapon to make a melee weapon attack, you can use an unarmed strike: a punch, kick, head–butt, or similar forceful blow (none of which count as weapons).
On a hit, an unarmed strike deals bludgeoning damage equal to 1 + your Strength modifier. You are proficient with your unarmed strikes.
Basic Rules – Melee Attacks
What Is Unarmed Strike?
An unarmed strike is a melee weapon attack that you make using a part of your character’s body, such as throwing a punch, striking with a kick, or landing a headbutt.
For most adventurers, unarmed strikes are done when they are disarmed or unable to get to their weapons, while others will use it as their default weapon of choice.
According to the Weapon table on page 149 of the Player’s Handbook, an unarmed strike deals 1 + your character’s Strength modifier in damage when you land an unarmed strike.
That means that an unarmed strike deals the least amount of damage of all the weapons that deal damage in the game.
Unarmed strikes also do not have any special properties to them, unlike many other weapons. They cannot be used with Dexterity via the finesse property since unarmed strikes lack that property.
So, unless you have a natural weapon or a class feature that lets you make unarmed strikes with Dexterity, you can only use Strength for an unarmed strike.
Unarmed Strike vs. Weapons
Some weird rules interactions can go on with unarmed strikes. While unarmed strikes are listed on the Weapon table and count as a melee weapon attack, they are not considered to be attacks made with a melee weapon.
This is because an unarmed strike is not a weapon, but rather an attack with your body. Unless you have a way to treat your unarmed strikes as a natural weapon, such as with a racial ability like the tabaxi’s claws, then you won’t be able to use abilities and features that rely on using a weapon during a melee attack.
Unarmed Strikes and Divine Smite
This is a rules question that gets brought up quite a bit. The wording for Divine Smite states that you have to be making a melee weapon attack in order to smite, and unarmed strikes are melee weapon attacks.
However, according to Jeremy Crawford, unarmed strikes don’t qualify for triggering Divine Smite. Whether it works at your table or not will be up to your DM.
Should You Use Unarmed Strike?
Unarmed strikes should be your default weapon only if you are building your character specifically to use them. Since you don’t roll any dice for an unarmed strike, you will never deal a large amount of damage with an unarmed strike.
Monks are the default option from the Player’s Handbook for excellent unarmed strikes. Their Martial Arts class feature gives them the ability to use unarmed strikes with Dexterity instead of Strength, which is their default physical ability score.
Also, monks have ways to make extra unarmed strikes on their turn thanks to their Martial Arts and Ki class features. These unarmed strikes aren’t Strength-based, but they are the most reliable way to use unarmed strikes.
Unarmed Strikes with The Monk Class
Monks are the quintessential unarmed striker in D&D 5e. This is due to a combination of their class features that take their unarmed strikes from basic punches to flurries of fists.
To begin with, the Martial Arts class feature adds a lot of functionality to unarmed strikes to make them viable in combat. Monks will use anywhere from a 1d4 to a 1d10 for their unarmed strike damage instead of the usual 1, depending on their level.
This feature also lets a Monk use Dexterity in place of Strength for unarmed strikes, a stat that Monks rely on to keep their AC up.
Finally, Martial Arts also lets Monks make an unarmed strike as a bonus action of their turn, provided they spend their action using a monk weapon or unarmed strike when taking the Attack action.
Other Monk class features stack onto this over time, too. Ki points from the Ki class feature can be used on Flurry of Blows, allowing a monk to make two unarmed strikes with a bonus action if they spend a ki point and attack with a monk weapon or unarmed strike.
Stunning Strike at level five lets a monk possibly incapacitate a foe with an unarmed strike by spending a ki point.
“Unarmed Fighting” Fighting Style
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduces plenty of new and unique fighting styles for the martial classes to take. For Fighters, the Unarmed Fighting option changes the damage die of the fighter’s unarmed strike to 1d6 + Strength modifier, or 1d8 + Strength modifier if the character uses two hands to deliver the blow.
In addition, a target grappled by a fighter with this fighting style takes 1d4 bludgeoning damage at the start of the fighter’s turn.
This option opens up some interesting character builds. This fighting style is available to Fighters at level one, meaning that a quick dip into fighter allows a Strength-based character to have viable unarmed strike damage die.
The bonus damage on a grapple could matter to Barbarians that love to use the advantage that Rage grants on Athletics checks to grapple and pummel their foes with this, too.
The Tavern Brawler Feat
If you have a feat to spare, the Tavern Brawler feat can increase your unarmed strike damage and add other benefits. With this feat, you can increase your Strength score by one, use a 1d4 for your unarmed strike damage die, and use improved weapons with proficiency.
This feat also lets you grapple foes as a bonus action after you hit them with an unarmed strike or improved weapon. This feat is a solid pickup for characters that can’t afford the fighter multiclass dip but want to increase their unarmed strike options. Grappling and unarmed strikes go together often, so getting both in one package is a pretty sweet deal.
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Rich is an avid D&D player and DM. He has been playing since the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st and 2nd editions. He has run campaigns of various editions with family and friends for over 20 years. Playing DnD 5th Edition in person at local game stores and online with VTT’s over the past 10 years has provided a consistent connection to how the game has grown. He strongly believes in understanding the source material, but catering the games to your individual players. Feel free to ask anything in the comments or drop him an email: [email protected].