Legally concealed handguns represent some of the most potent defensive tools available to the average person. But the use of deadly force is not always justified, and there are those places we go where concealed carry is prohibited. A popular everyday carry option that works to fill these force level and carry gaps is pepper spray. It’s portable, affordable, easy to find. But just like other defensive options, there a few things to keep in mind when deciding if pepper spray is a good fit for your needs, as well as which products to buy.
What is Pepper Spray?
Pepper spray is a liquid compressed into aerosol canisters which contains oleoresin capsicum (OC). It’s a chemical extracted from chili pepper oil which acts as an inflammatory agent. When sprayed into the eyes it causes burning, swelling and involuntary blinking. Because it is so potent, it’s common for people to just clamp their eyes shut to cope with the pain. When pepper spray is inhaled through the nose and mouth, it causes coughing and shortness of breath. The recipient immediately stops what they are doing to move away from the sprayer and to cope with the pain.
OC pepper spray is used by law enforcement, prison correctional officers and for civilian self-defense. It has a proven track record for being an effective deterrent against two-legged threats as well as four-legged threats, including feral dogs and bear. Some pepper sprays are blends that include CS Tear Gas, to enhance the respiratory effects, in addition to UV dye, which is meant to aid the police in identifying perpetrators. The formulations of pepper spray commonly used today rarely produce lasting negative side effects. Although getting sprayed is extremely unpleasant, most people recover from it in about an hour.
Why Choose Pepper Spray?
One of greatest advantages of a handgun as a defensive tool is that it allows the self-defender to engage a threat at a distance of several yards, if needed. On the other end of the defensive scale are contact weapons, including electric stun guns, knives, clubs, fists, feet, etc. These require us to fight within arm’s reach of an assailant, which greatly increases the likelihood of getting injured.
Pepper spray effectively splits the difference between handguns and contact weapons. An adult holding a knife or a hand tool, like a hammer, has a reach of around 2.5 to 4 feet. Smaller pepper spray devices can offer an effective range of somewhere between 10 to 18 feet, depending on the product used. That added distance can make all of the difference in avoiding injury.
Because pepper spray is a non-lethal option, the social and legal consequences of using it to stop an attack are on a different level from those of drawing and firing a gun. This is especially true if someone gets sprayed and it is later determined by a court that the use of force was not justified. It’s not a bad idea to carry pepper spray along with your defensive handgun when circumstances allow. With prices starting at around $15 for pocket size models, it’s definitely an affordable addition.
Spray vs. Stream vs. Gel
Although we tend to group OC products together as “sprays,” there are actually three common types of delivery methods available. Each type has its own benefits and limitations.
A pepper device configured to spray, or to fog, disperses the OC fluid into the air to form a mist of airborne particles (a.k.a. an aerosol), much like a can of hair spray. This spreading action covers a greater surface area and increases the likelihood of the OC being inhaled as well as effecting the eyes. Multiple bursts, or one longer burst, from the canister can be used to create a temporary “wall” of OC that the assailant will have to walk through to get to you.
The tradeoff with sprays is that they don't have as long of a range as stream or gel products. They also present a greater risk of some of the OC blowing back onto the self defender if the wind is traveling in an unfavorable direction.
Canisters configured to fire a Stream of OC product are much like the squirt guns you played with as a kid. The tight stream significantly reduces chances of blowback in windy conditions. However, these devices require greater precision on the part of the user because it's easier to miss the intended target.
Gels, as the name implies, are a thicker version of a stream pattern product. OC Gel was developed primarily for use by prison guards and law enforcement personnel inside of medical and detention facilities so as to avoid contaminating air ducts with OC. Gels tend to be slower acting and must be sprayed directly into the eyes since they do not produce aerosolized AC to be inhaled.
All three delivery systems have their place, but spray and stream products tend to be a better fit for most civilian applications. Whichever system you choose, look for an inert, practice version of the product you're considering. These water-based canisters are harmless and can be used to get an idea of how the delivery system behaves, how to aim it and how long it will last before it runs out of pressure.
“Buy” the Numbers
OC sprays sold for civilian self defense are wholly unregulated. This means the manufacturers do not have to follow any federal guidelines regarding the canister's contents, range or effectiveness. Consumers need to do their homework in order to understand what they are buying. It’s important to stick with reputable brand name products and avoid cheap knockoffs.
The folks at Mission First Tactical did a great job of de-mystifying their Rapid Strike series of pepper spray options by taking the time to design very clear and easy to understand product packaging. All of the data you need to know is easy to find.
- Effective Range: This is the manufacturer's listed maximum distance at which the product can be used. The smaller pocket and key chain models shown here show a range of 10 feet while the larger home defense version is listed at 18 feet. In practice, these maximum distances tend to be a bit optimistic. The products tend to saturate their intended target more effectively at shorter distances.
- Sprays Per Can: OC sprays can be fired multiple times in short bursts. The number of sprays, or bursts, contained in the canister varies depending on the product. But how long is a burst? Generally a single burst is about 0.5 seconds. The canisters can also be fired continuously until empty. This will get more product into the air more quickly but it will deplete the device within a few seconds.
- OC Percentage: There are all kinds of numbers used to demonstrate how “hot” a particular OC product is to potential buyers. The most meaningful number is the percentage of Major Capsaicinoids (MC), or Total Capsaicinoids (TC). Law enforcement and civilian-grade OC sprays can contain MC levels ranging from 0.18% to 1.33%. By comparison, bear spray MC levels range from 1.0% to 2.0%. The Rapid Strike products shown here have an MC of 1.33%.
- Expiration Date: Although OC compounds do not spoil, the canisters they're stored in can lose pressure over time. Expiration dates are usually printed on the aluminum canisters themselves. You may have to remove the canister from its elastic sheath or plastic carrier in order to see it. Expired devices may not deploy properly, so be sure to replace them as needed.
Check Your Local Regulations
Like any other defensive tool, the rules regarding the possession and use of OC pepper sprays can vary greatly from state to state. In some regions it can be carried almost anywhere by most adults, while in other places it's a criminal offense to have a canister in your pocket or purse. Be sure to verify your local regulations before adding pepper spray to your self defense line-up.
To learn more about the Mission First Tactical Rapid Strike products shown here, visit missionfirsttactical.com.