Long before Australopithecus strode the savannah, one of our distant ancestors figured out that hitting something with a good solid stick was easier on the knuckles and harder on the target. Thus was born the club. Fast forward a few million years to a camp of more-advanced-but-still-primitive humans. One of them figures out that you could get an even better club by attaching a rock to the end of it to hit the target hit even harder. Thus was born the mace, one of the oldest weapons much like the spear.
Maces in Warfare
The first thing about a mace is that, well, a mace is a stick with a hard bit on the end that you hit your enemy with. It's about as straightforward to use as you can get, even more so than an axe or spear. At the same time, basic maces are even easier to make than spears. Attach a stone to solid stick, or hammer some metal spikes or a metal ring around the end of it. Like spears, they had a bargain basement quality for equipping militia with cheap backup weapons. Even so, more complex maces made entirely of metal were employed towards the end of the middle ages (more on this later).
Unlike bladed weapons, maces did damage by blunt force trauma. They did not cleave apart or poke big holes into tissue and bone; rather, they shattered bones and pulverized organs. This has some advantages as their blows would often send force through rigid armor, though it was less effective against armor with padding behind it. For this reason, once plate armor became common, maces became one of the go-to weapons used by knights for use in close quarters against other knights.
Maces came in spiked (also known as "morningstars"), flanged and flat varieties. Morningstars and flanged maces had some (if not much) ability to penetrate armor and flesh, but their spikes and flanges were made mostly to dent into armor, not to pierce it; this ensures the strike would transfer as much force as possible onto a small point instead of glancing off, granting you a wider variety of effective attack angles against plate armor, which couldn't handle impacts very well on its own. In Japan, the most common type of mace was the kanabo and its many variants. These were essentially metal rods fitted with studs; variants made of wood with metal studs are believed to have existed, and would have been easier to make.
With a mace being a primarily kinetic weapon, a blow to the head is extremely dangerous, and has a fair chance of outright snapping the neck or caving in the skull, helm or no. But like axes, you needed a good swing to get the best results; a mace's blow is less likely to kill than a sword or axe strike, though, and a mace strike needs to be moving at high speed with room for maneuvering to do damage. These sorts of maces also had to be more heavily built than swords, which meant that a mace could not have the same reach. So you have a very close-quarters melee weapon which still requires a bit of free space to make the most out of.
Maces Out of Warfare
Maces became a symbol associated with knights and representative of their ideals; nobility, law, and education. As such, many groups co-opted the mace as a symbol of authority, especially universities and parliaments. These ritual maces were made more elaborate, decorated, and bejeweled to show the wealth and strength of the organization in question, and later became synonymous with the existing scepters used by royalty. They're still used today for formal occasions.
One variant of the mace popular with police is the expanding baton, a small metal mace which collapses into the grip. Less lethal, but quite possibly deadly. Unfortunately, the baton has been abused in several high profile cases, and a (completely wrong) public view that pepper spray and tasers are sufficient less lethal options has led to the baton being phased out in many departments. Replacing it is a weapon that's actually more likely to be lethal, but looks completely innocuous: Flashlights. While electronics have advanced so far that portable flashlights can easily be the size of a large pen, and really powerful ones can still be thinner than two fingers, large flashlights with heavy batteries and an endcap designed to transfer maximum force (while the untrained eye only sees it shaped for easier battery changes) make really good maces, and have the added advantage of being able to temporarily blind an opponent. This is a large part of why cops grip flashlights the way they do.
Eventually, some starry-eyed young blacksmith had the clever idea of separating the handle of the mace and one-or-more heads before stringing them together with a length of hardened chain, based on farming equipment meant to separate grain from its husks. And thus was born the flail, the mace's younger, sexier brother with the same name as the aforementioned farm tool.
Flails pose many advantages over maces. The length of chain serves to add what amounts to a few extra feet of windup to the force of every blow, helping to counter some of the mace's space problems, and also gives the normally-short ranged weapon a little extra reach. Furthermore, due to the flexibility of the chain, a flail could circumvent certain forms of protection, striking blows around shields and parries to crash into secondary targets, or wrap around other weapons to disarm an opponent and open them up for a lethal follow-through. They weren't even that much harder to make than regular maces, though the addition of chain links did add significantly to the construction time.
However, all of these fun tricks were offset by a single, gigantic, unbelievable disadvantage that helped ensure that the mace remained common while the flail was stuck as a specialized elite weapon: training time. You think a sword takes a lot of work to use without being a danger to yourself and others? Flails were extremely unwieldy to handle and easy to lose in a fight, and that's before factoring in the problems of dealing concussive force rather than cutting or piercing an opponent that they share with maces. They had their place, but that place was primarily in the hands of a highly-trained knight slugging it out with another knight in full plate armor, not with a dude fumbling for a backup weapon because he couldn't use a spear properly.
And then there are heavy flails - ones with a long handle, short chain and long wooden (often steel-reinforced) heads - basically the same flails peasants used to thrash plants, only modified to better thrash people to a bloody pulp. Contrary to its knightly one-handed cousin, it had zero skill requirement and was commonly used by criminals and rebellious peasants, most famously Czech Hussites.
Lastly, there is a light flail - a single flat ball on a short rope. It was mostly used as a non-lethal weapon by bandits, kidnappers and other criminals, for it is very easy to hide and can concuss or even knock out even armed and trained victims without killing them (thus avoiding the issue of "where do I hide the corpse of the guy I just mugged?"). If you end up on the receiving end of a bandit ambush, don't forget that your purse, loaded with (very dense) golden coins can be used as a makeshift light flail. This could work the other way, as an exceptionally concealed weapon, if you load our purse with lead. Another popular improvised modern flail is a sock loaded with something dense, like a bar of soap or a rock. Since these are easy to construct, and the component items are near universal and impossible to restrict, it makes for a popular weapon in high-security places like prisons.
In terms of spelling, pronunciation, and being a weapon, they are the same as what the article has gone over thus far. That is pretty much where the similarities end. "Mace" is a non-lethal chemical weapon that is applied to an opponent's face like spray paint, causing severe eye irritation that temporarily causes blindness. Like the products Kleenex and Band-Aid, mace (originally "Chemical Mace") has fallen victim to what is known as "generic trademark". While the origin of the modern usage of Mace was tear gas, it is more associated with pepper spray.
Maces in Fantasy
Maces have been largely stereotyped as a brutish weapon in fantasy, and are thus the common go-to weapon for the large ogre-and-troll types.; for instance, the aforementioned kanabo is the sterotypical weapon of Oni. It's also a symbol of strength for characters, so maces (more commonly, warhammers) are also sometimes given to stoic warriors.
This stigma is due to their use: maces require a degree of strength to effectively crush their opponents. This is perfect for the absurdly muscular bloodthirsty monster who can just flail his arms around and he can swat away fighters left and right, or for the strong warrior who can put his entire strength behind the weapon to crush his opposition in a single blow.
Earlier editions of D&D included injunctions against holy men bearing bladed weapons, based in part on real life taboos about clergy being banned from "shedding blood"; as maces use blunt force trauma to kill, they were free game for any bishop with a militaristic bent to wield, so clerics that couldn't use spear and swords and such generally settled for maces and warhammers. Even now, maces remain on the "simple" weapons list for any cleric that would prefer not to use their deity's "favored weapon" for whatever reason.
| Battleaxe - Dagger - Lance - Mace |
Pole-arm - Spear - Sword - Warhammer
| Blowgun - Bows and Arrows - Cannon |
Crossbow - Firearm - Rocket - Shuriken - Sling