Abstract Scale effects on the strength of coal are studied using a discrete element model. The key point of the model is its capability to discriminate between the “strictly sample size” effect and the “Discrete Fracture Network (DFN) density” effect on the mechanical response. Simulations of true triaxial compression tests are carried out to identify their respective roles. The possible bias due to the discretization size distribution of the discrete element model is investigated in detail by considering low-resolution configurations. The model is shown to be capable of quantitatively reproducing the dependency of the maximum strength on the size of the sample. This relationship mainly relies on the DFN density. For all given sizes, as long as the DFN density remains constant with a uniform distribution or if discontinuities are absent in the considered medium, the maximum strength of the material remains constant.