Gun people really don’t understand pepper spray. Not many other people do, either!

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A recent article about the failures of pepper spray got me to thinking: why don’t people understand what it’s really for?

Gun people (that is, people who own and/or carry firearms for personal defense) sometimes get a little myopic. Oddly enough, people who don’t like guns get a little myopic too. When it comes to oleoresin capsicum (“OC”, commonly called pepper spray) both sides have a poor understanding of its place in the defensive continuum. (The same can be said of all the other less-lethal tools, too!)

This was brought to mind recently when I read this article over at Bob Owens relates the story of a motorist who gave a ride to someone; when the passenger got out of the car, he sprayed the driver with mace (Mace is a brand of chemical spray, and is used generically by reporters who don’t know any better — kind of like “assault weapon”.) The driver was able to draw his gun and shoot the attacker once, then drive off to a safe location and call police.

The point of Owens’ article, and he’s correct in this, is that chemical sprays like OC (and Mace) are not completely effective in stopping aggressive action. There are a lot of variables which affect their efficacy, including wind, whether the recipient is under the influence of intoxicants, extreme rage, and sometimes the phase of the moon. (I’m kidding about that last one, but sometimes you look at an incident and wonder just why something didn’t work when it really should have!)

The article goes on to say that people shouldn’t rely on chemical sprays as a primary defensive tool, and that a legally carried firearm is a better way to reliably stop a determined attacker. That’s somewhat true, but not entirely. There are exceptions to everything.

There are situations where a person might need to rely on sprays as a primary defensive tool. Whether it’s because firearms aren’t allowed in some places, or because the person isn’t yet ready to accept the enormous responsibility of dealing with a firearm, or because they lack the physical strength to handle a firearm, or perhaps simply can’t afford the tariff that comes with purchase and licensing, a chemical spray may in fact be their only choice. I would hardly tell them to avoid what may be the best option for them in their circumstances, and would rather they learn what the limitations are and how to work around them.

Proponents of chemical sprays choose to ignore the fact that they don’t work in a certain percentage of cases, and fail to counsel the people who buy these products that they can and do fail to stop attackers. As I pointed out, there are a number of conditions which can render all chemical sprays ineffectual, and you can’t predict ahead of time what those will be. It’s truly luck of the draw. If you do carry chemical sprays you need to learn the best ways to deploy them, what to do when they don’t work, and how to decontaminate yourself and any innocents after its use.

For the gun owner, do chemical sprays have any legitimate use? Yes, they do, and it’s something that every concealed carrier (CCW) should consider: they make a good intermediate force option for those situations which don’t call for a lethal response.

Not every interaction you have with other humans, not even every interaction you have with criminals, is a shooting situation. Lethal force is a tool that can only be legitimately used when you’re faced with immediate danger of death or grave bodily harm, and outside of that its use (even the threat of its use) may land you in a cell.

For those situations where you need to stop someone from what he’s doing, but what he’s doing isn’t putting you in the kind of imminent danger that justifies your use of a firearm, chemical sprays provide one possible response (they aren’t the only intermediate force option, of course.) For those situations they can be invaluable and I recommend them — as long as the user understands their limitations and applications.

I’ve often carried OC spray as an adjunct to a firearm. There have been situations when I was prepared to use it, had it in hand with my thumb on the valve, but haven’t had to actually push the button. In each case the incident was one in which the firearm on my hip would not have been a correct response, but the pepper spray was.

If you’re going to choose a chemical spray as your less-lethal option, heed what I said above: learn how to deploy them, how to decontaminate afterwards, and be prepared with a backup plan if for some reason the spray doesn’t work.

Learning how to use pepper spray (or Mace) is much easier than learning how to use a firearm — and you can find videos online that will help you, like this selection from the Personal Defense Network. The key to learning how to use chemical sprays is to have an inert training canister, one that is an exactly duplicate of the one you’ve chosen but is filled with a harmless liquid. These allow you to find out how far the spray goes, what it covers, how long it lasts, and how to deploy the spray quickly and efficiently. In fact, I recommend that you always buy an inert unit every time you buy a “live” one, and that you only buy from companies that produce inert training units. Around our house, that’s a hard and fast rule!

If you’re thinking about carrying OC spray, what should you buy? I’m a big fan of the Defender series from ASP Products. They consist of an aluminum baton tube into which is inserted a spray cartridge, and you can get both live and training inserts. They can be used as a keychain, put into the pocket, or tucked into the waistband. The unit has a safety lockout and uses a release at the end of the baton, operating in the same way as a “tactical” flashlight: thumb on the valve, push to release the spray. You always know where it’s pointed and where the trigger is.

They come in three lengths: the Palm Defender is 4-1/2” long, the Key Defender measures 5-3/4”, and the Street Defender is 6-1/2” in length (it’s also a little larger in diameter, making it more of a police duty item.) The active ingredient is a 10% solution of 2,000,000 SHU OC, so it’s up there with the best in heat factor.

When I bought mine the only option was the Key Defender, which is probably their best option. It’s almost exactly the same dimension as a typical Kubaton self-defense tool and can be used in exactly the same manner. It’s by far my favorite because of its dual-duty nature (they even come in colors, if you care about such things. My wife certainly does.)

You can order the Key Defender from Amazon, but be sure to pick up an inert training cartridge (or two) as well!

-=[ Grant Cunningham ]=-


About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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