Weapons are broken into three basic types: one-handed weapons which can be wielded with a single hand, two-handed weapons which require two hands, and ranged weapons which also require two hands. You'll also find weapons labeled main hand or off hand, meaning that they can only be wielded in your main hand or off hand -- which comes into play with classes that can wield a different weapon in each hand (dual wielding).
You will also occasionally run into items labeled off hand without a weapon type. These items are typically equippable by any class in their off-hand slot. These can be anything from cosmetic items -- like flowers -- to items that buff stats for classes that can't dual wield but can use one-handed weapons. And, while they aren't quite weapons, shields are considered off-hand items as well.
Each class has access to different types of weapons. You automatically know how to use any of the weapons your class is proficient at -- no training to acquire or skill books to hunt down -- though several classes are only able to dual wield once the select a talent specialization at level 10. Here's what each class can use.
- Death Knight: One-handed axes, one-handed maces, polearms, one-handed swords, two-handed axes, two-handed maces, and two-handed swords. Death Knights can also dual-wield one-handed weapons.
- Druid: Daggers, fist weapons, one-handed maces, polearms, staves, and two-handed maces.
- Hunter: One-handed axes, daggers, fist weapons, polearms, staves, swords, two-handed axes, two-handed swords, bows, crossbows, and guns. Hunters can also dual-wield one-handed weapons -- but shouldn't, since they do their best damage with ranged weapons which take both hands. Most non-pet abilities are also tied to the use of ranged weapons, so it's doubly important you use a ranged weapon.
- Mage: Daggers, staves, one-handed swords, and wands.
- Monk: One-handed axes, fist weapons, one-handed maces, polearms, staves, and one-handed swords. Brewmaster and windwalker monks can also dual-wield one-handed weapons.
- Paladin: One-handed axes, one-handed maces, polearms, one-handed swords, two-handed axes, two-handed maces, two-handed swords, and shields.
- Priest: Daggers, one-handed maces, staves, and wands.
- Rogue: One-handed axes, daggers, fist weapons, one-handed maces, bows, crossbows, and guns. Rogues can also dual-wield one-handed weapons.
- Shaman: One-handed axes, daggers, fist weapons, one-handed maces, staves, two-handed axes, two-handed maces, and shields. Enhancement shamans can also dual wield.
- Warlock: Daggers, staves, one-handed swords, and wands.
- Warrior: One-handed axes, daggers, fist weapons, one-handed maces, pole arms, staves, one-handed swords, two-handed axes, two-handed maces, two-handed swords, bows, crossbows, guns, and shields. Fury warriors can dual wield both one-handed weapons and certain two-handed weapons with the level 38 ability Titan's Grip.
Each weapon has a range of damage it will do when it hits, a speed that tells you how often it hits, and a DPS (or damage per second) which does the math for how much overall damage you'll do considering the weapon's damage and speed. Additionally, weapons can have many types of stats, like stamina or critical strike, which will increase your character's stats as indicated. All of the information listed in a weapon's description is important, though for some classes parts of it are more important than others.
If you play a caster -- or any other character who doesn't actively hit the bad guys over the head with a weapon -- you're probably not concerned with weapon damage, speed, or DPS, because you're doing the bulk of your damage with spells and other abilities. Thus, you're probably mostly interested in keeping a weapon equipped for the stats it gives you. You should be looking for weapons that give big buffs to the stats that are most important to your character.
But if you're playing a class that relies on weapon damage to get the job done, then weapon damage, speed, and DPS are just as important as the stat buffs a weapon gives you. As to whether you want a fast or a slow weapon, that depends on several factors. You'll frequently find that physical damage skills do some percentage of weapon damage, which means you want a weapon that does the highest damage possible (and is typically slower) to get the most out of your abilities. However, some abilities are activated or have a chance to activate each time you strike, in which case a faster weapon that strikes more frequently (but does less damage per hit) is ideal. Take a look at your talents and skills before you make a call on the perfect weapon -- and if you're not certain, you can always take a new weapon out for a test drive with a training dummy.
But while you're leveling, don't worry too much about your exact weapon stats: you're going to constantly be finding upgrades, so you should probably be using the newest, highest level weapon you have.
If your class supports it, dual wielding weapons is as simple as equipping a weapon in both your main hand and off hand weapon slots. Be aware that when you dual wield, the damage done by your off hand weapon is cut by half and your chance to miss with auto-attacks with both hands is increased to 19%. If that all sounds like gibberish to you, don't worry. The gist of it is that despite penalties taken, dual wielding two weapons will still do very good damage -- certainly better than just wielding a single one-handed weapon.
But should you dual wield or use a two-handed weapon? Like with whether you should use a fast or slow weapon, there's not an easy answer to this question: so before you decide to go one way or the other, take a close look at your situation. Some classes have talents or skills that will favor using one-handed or two-handed weapons -- pay attention to the skills you use before deciding to switch to a different weapon type. But, again, most players leveling up are constantly getting gear upgrades and will probably get the most benefit from wielding whichever weapons are newest. So if you can dual wield and happen to have a pair of great one-handed weapons, go for it. But if you find a two-handed weapon that does more damage? Switch! There's no reason you can't switch back later when you find a better weapon.
And whatever your weapon of choice -- good luck out there!
Just because you're a newbie doesn't mean you can't bring your A-game to World of Warcraft! Visit the WoW Rookie Guide for links to everything you need to get started as a new player, from the seven things every newbie ought to know to how to get started as a healer or as a tank.