It is usually made from two or more sticks attached by a short chain ; one stick is held and swung, causing the other to strike a pile of grain, loosening the husks. The precise dimensions and shape of a flail would have been developed by generations of farmers to suit the particular grain they were harvesting. For example, flails used by farmers in Quebec to process wheat were generally made from two pieces of wood, the handle being about 1.5 m long by 3 cm in diameter, and the second stick being about 1 m long by about 3 cm in diameter, with a slight taper towards the end. Flails for other grains, such as rice or spelt, would have had different dimensions.
Flails have generally fallen into disuse in many nations because of the availability of technologies such as combine harvesters that require much less manual labour. But in many places, such as Minnesota, wild rice can only be harvested using manual means, specifically through the use of a canoe and a flail that is made of smooth, round wood no more than 30 inches long.
As with most agricultural tools, flails were often used as weapons by farmers who may have lacked better weapons. The French Revolution was mostly fought with agricultural tools. The flail is proposed as one of the origins of the two-piece baton known in the kobudo weapon system as the nunchaku.
The flail is depicted alongside the shepherd’s “crook” as symbols of office for the crowned Egyptian Pharaoh. The flail symbolises the Pharaoh's role as provider of food for his people and the crook symbolises his role as the shepherd of his people. Both crook and flail also serve to link the Pharaoh with Osiris.
The Egyptians also used flails to hurt enemy captives or slaves. Because of this flails were considered a sign of power, Pharaohs would hold flails.