Pepper spray is an excellent and under-utilized tool for self-defense in a prepper’s bag of tricks. It is also one of the only true intermediate or less-lethal force options that are easy to carry and generally effective. Pepper spray may seem like a no-brainer, point-and-squirt implement, but like everything else we as preppers are concerned with the devil is in the details.
Essential qualities of pepper spray usage include things like knowing your formulation, effective range, and type of agent. More advanced but equally important information is knowing how to fight through getting dosed with your own spray due to blowback or subsequent contact contamination and having contingency actions in place in the event your application is ineffective.
This article will serve as a guide to the most important criteria when selecting pepper spray, as well as things you should consider, both pros and cons, before making the decision to carry and use it as part of a well-rounded self defense plan.
The Heat: What is Pepper Spray and What Isn’t
Pepper spray is basically a solution or mixture of capsaicinoids, the very same chemicals that make hot peppers hot, and an emulsifying agent to carry the capsaicinoids in water. Take the two, mix, shake well, put it in a pressurized container and whap! Pepper spray!
Ok, the process is not that simple, so don’t try to blend your own at home, but those are the essential ingredients.
Capsaicin, specifically refined oleoresin capsicum (OC), is the inflammatory ingredient responsible for the searing pain, heat and accompanying inflammation of the eyes, nose and mouth when you bite into a really spicy pepper or get a dose of pepper spray. A higher concentration of capsaicin results in more intense pain and burning.
Pepper spray as an agent can be had in a variety of types, from fine aerosols or thicker sprays all the way up to foams and gels designed to stick to an assailant’s face and be less susceptible to wind. The type of spray as well as the concentration and quality of the OC in the solution will make a big difference when it comes to effectiveness.
Note that pepper spray is often called “mace” as a generic term for any chemical spray, but mace is actually a different chemical spray. Pepper spray, more properly OC spray, is a completely different, and more effective, agent. Pepper spray is also not CS, or tear gas, spray, though it will cause plenty of tearing nevertheless!
Blends of various chemicals exist on the commercial market and are purported to offer maximum effectiveness compared to straight OC. The problem with the other chemicals, CN and CS, is that while strong irritants, they rely more on the attacker feeling pain and giving up. OC is more effective as it causes inflammation regardless if the recipient can feel pain or not. You should avoid straight C.S. sprays entirely.
How Does Pepper Spray Affect an Attacker?
A dose of pepper spray typically causes intense inflammation in the soft tissues of the head and face, particularly the eyes, as well as intense coughing when inhaled.
Physiological response to this will typically consist of involuntary closing of the eyes, labored breathing, coughing, excess mucous production and, of course, shrieking, fiery pain. These affects intensify in short order before slowly subsiding with time.
Pepper spray at its best will temporarily blind and incapacitate a ne’er-do-well by seriously hampering their eyesight and breathing. At its worst, it will typically degrade vision and make breathing more difficult, giving the defender an edge as the confrontation goes on.
Even taking into account a high-quality, intense formula and a good hit, there are some people who are not drastically affected by pepper spray.
It seems unbelievable, but whether through training, motivation, natural resilience, drug/alcohol intoxication or sheer toughness some individuals are able to shrug off a liberal application of spicy goodness and keep right on trucking, at least for a while.
At any rate pepper spray does take a short while to ramp up to full intensity once applied; it does not typically stop someone cold (sorry, poor choice of words) as soon as they are hit with a stream. Be sure you have follow-up procedures in place for dealing with a missed or failed application.
Pick the Right Pepper: Blends, Sprayers and Spray Patterns
If you learn nothing else from this article, learn this: not all pepper spray is made equal! You should not expect a $5.00 can of no-name spray you bought at the gas station in the middle of nowhere to work nearly as well as a premium product made by a major supplier of U.S. police agencies.
The first step in selecting a good can of spray is to determine your needs, and how you need to carry it. A can intended for concealed carry will by necessity be much smaller than one designed for home defense use. Do you need to conceal the can in a pocket or bag? Will it be riding on your belt clipped on, or on a pouch? Is the can for home or car defense?
The design of the can itself is also important: you want to choose a unit that is easy to access with intuitive controls. Any unit that requires it be drawn from a pouch and then have a safety rotated or pressed to deactivate will be much slower into action than one that has a flip-top cover over a thumb switch.
Bear in mind to you must find a balance between performance and packability, much like choosing a gun for concealed carry. Smaller units have smaller payloads, meaning less spray time, and less range than larger ones, sometimes only a couple of feet.
The larger the unit the harder it is to conceal and less likely you are to carry it, but you’ll get the benefit of lots of formula to pass around and greater range.
Formulation is a characteristic that is fraught with confusion, misinformation and half-truths. A given OC formula has two metrics that matter: Intensity and Concentration.
Intensity is the strength of the pepper blend itself, its raw heat. This is measured on a variety of scales, but the most accurate for our purposes is the same one used for hot sauce, incidentally: SHU, or Scoville Heat Units. This scale goes from 0 for “Not Hot” to several million, or “Enamel Melting.”
Debate rages about what the minimum “floor” for pepper spray effectiveness is, but in general hotter is always better. Most of the known-effective manufacturers start at around 800,000 SHU and go way up from there.
The other important characteristic, concentration, is a measure of how much OC is in the mixture. Higher concentration means more hot stuff on the bad guy, equating to a longer burn. 5% is a good minimum, and more is better.
Keep this in mind: most makers of pepper spray face no regulation on their product claims, so purchasing from a known-quantity good manufacturer is essential to ensure positive effect on target. Don’t get taken in by outlandish claims from snake-oil salesmen.
The last consideration when choosing a model is the spray pattern. All have advantages and disadvantages. Below is a short overview of the pros and cons of the different spray patterns. Consider which one will suit your needs best.
- Aerosol– short to moderate range. Fine spray is easily inhaled, accelerating breathing problems and coughing for attacker, but will likely get everywhere, including on you. Vulnerable to blowback.
- Stream– long range for given size. Tight stream of agent bucks wind more easily. Accurate, but less likely to be inhaled.
- Foam/Gel– Moderate to long range, lowest chance of contamination or blowback, but slow to take effect and unlikely to be inhaled.
If in doubt, choose an aerosol.
Where Does Pepper Spray Fit In My Plan?
Pepper spray is one of the very few ranged less-lethal tools available and small enough to carry for everyday use.
Note that I say less-lethal, because like all such tools the use of force in a defensive context entails some risks; while extremely rare, some people have died from an application of pepper spray, and many more have suffered injuries and painful boo-boos from a blind stumble, fall, and subsequent broken bone or whacked skull.
That being said, use of pepper spray is often permitted in areas where other weapons are not or are tightly controlled. It is generally accepted as a “less-forceful” option and not one that is inherently lethal force is the eyes of the law like a gun or knife.
That being said don’t think you can whip out the Hot Stuff and hose someone down to end an argument or make a point: using pepper spray is still force, and carries legal ramifications. Know the laws of your state and city, and most importantly be prudent when using it.
It goes without saying, but pepper spray should never, ever be used as a joke or prank: this stuff is not funny, and getting a good squirt on your face and up your nose will make you wish you were dead.
An accidental discharge, even a small one, can clear out a decent sized building of civilian traffic. If you don’t believe that, ask around at local gun and cop shops if they ever had an accidental spray. They’ll tell you.
It is not exciting or sexy, but you should seek out professional training for the use and employment of pepper spray, even if it is just a half day class. Be prepared to “take the ride” from your chosen brand so you know what to expect in the (likely) event you get hit with blowback in an actual defensive encounter.
If the time comes to apply pepper spray, aim for the eyes and apply a one to two second burst. Make sure the bad guy gets a good dose. Take care, as even scorching hot pepper spray takes a short time to “ignite.”
During this time, if your attacker goes down or crumples, act to improve your situation: get away if you can, don’t stand there and keep squirting him like you are watering your succulents. If they do not submit, retreat or you cannot get away, be ready to employ additional, more serious force, be it hand-to-hand or another weapon.
Maintain Your Spray!
No matter what brand you buy, you must remember that all pressurized containers will typically lose pressure over time. Many brands will sell a product with an expiration date. If yours has one, replace it before the expiration date or every 30 months, whichever comes sooner.
Also you’ll want to give your can a little shake every couple of weeks to ensure the ingredients are well mixed and ready for deployment. If you pocket or bag carry a can, carefully examine the nozzle to ensure it remains free of debris that may clog or impede the spray.
Below are a few choice makers of pepper spray and in a variety of styles, types and sizes. Any of them are sure to have one that will suit your needs, from tiny keychain-sized units to large, building-clearing party cans.
- SABRE Red
- Fox Labs
Pepper spray is an excellent and underutilized defensive tool in many preppers’ arsenals, and will readily disable or drive off most attackers.
A strongly blended formula will severely debilitate or disable all but the toughest attackers, and do so with very little chance of permanent injury or death. Its range, effectiveness and reputation are invaluable for every day carry applications all across the U.S.
Do not underestimate and forgo this powerful asset! Purchase a good model from a reputable manufacturer, get trained on its strengths and weaknesses and make it a part of your defensive solution.
Do you carry pepper spray, or are you considering it? Have you ever been sprayed with the hot stuff? Do you have a favorite brand the author left off his list? Talk to us in the comments!
Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.