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How to Pepper Spray

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Photos by Dave Merrill


Amongst the cognoscenti, the popularity of a less-lethal option for EDC has been steadily increasing.. Whether you use one to add to the force continuum, or because more deadly weapons are illegal in your locale, you need to know the why’s and how’s behind them.


You can’t shoot every threat you run into — pulling or using a gun on a less-than-deadly-force threat can get you put in prison. The old saying “If all you have is a hammer, every problem gets treated like a nail” is in play here.

In my class lectures on this subject I often refer to the case of George Zimmerman. Change the dynamics of the case a bit; if George had sprayed Trayvon Martin in the face with OC spray when he was confronted, would we even know who George was? The answer is likely not, because this would’ve very likely ended the confrontation right there. And everybody involved would’ve been better off for it.

If not having to kill another human being if you don’t have to isn’t enough, less than lethal options also help you do things like not shoot someone’s dog when you get chased while jogging.

One can do a “take back” in effect with OC if the decision to use spray was hasty, whereas “oops, sorry” can’t be done with bullets.

The vast majority of the research done on the use of OC spray on humans has come from the police world for obvious reasons. Several things we know from observation of use of OC spray in law enforcement going way back to the 1980s is that OC tends to work very well (roughly 85 percent of the time, or better), and it tends to lower the level of violence involved in arrest scenarios. It “takes the fight out of the fighter” to steal a quote from one of my mentors.

In the non-LE context it tends to work even better. Why? Because what cops have to do that non-cop self-defenders don’t is arrest bad guys — to actually lay hands on them after spraying them.

We also know from numerous U.S. and Canadian law enforcement studies that OC spray lowers the injury rate for both the cops and the suspects involved. In fact, OC spray has proven to be the safest use of force option available for law enforcement, with injury rates being almost nil. This is safer for everyone involved, even when compared to empty hand tactics.

Lastly, OC is widely accepted in our society, so much so that it’s common to see spray in purses. It’s socially acceptable to do things like walk out to your car across the dreaded dark parking lot with your OC in hand. Doing so with a gun will likely cause alarm to bystanders, or even cause the police to be called. With OC, people don’t even bat an eye, if they even notice. This allows a defender to have a near instantaneous response to an assailant.

No, you probably shouldn’t carry three OC dispensers, but any one of them should be fairly easy to integrate into your EDC.

No, you probably shouldn’t carry three OC dispensers, but any one of them should be fairly easy to integrate into your EDC.


The non-LE tasers suck, period. Even in the LE world, tasers are an iffy thing. In my experience, about 50 percent of taser shots work the way we want tasers to work. Electronic “stun guns” are a jackass party favor at best and worthless for self-defense. Sorry, gun show vendors.

Expandable batons are a pain to carry and damn near completely ineffective even when used by someone who’s good with a baton. And if you aren’t? Good luck.

Of the less-lethal options that are viable for CCW carry, the two that stand out are OC spray and saps. Saps are illegal in many states, even for people who can legally carry a gun. Even though I think they’re a viable (and old-school awesome) choice, you may not have that option.

This leaves us with OC spray, aka pepper spray …


A very real issue I discuss in training is smart purchasing. In the OC world, to use guns as an analogy, it’s very easy to buy a Hi-Point-quality spray, and often difficult for people to find a Glock/SIG/S&W quality of spray.

Many people are surprised to find there are no national standards for OC makers unless the OC spray in question is marketed as a bear or dog spray. For use on animals, OC spray is heavily regulated by the EPA; for use on people, there are no rules. Nothing exists for anti-bad-guy OC in the way we have SAAMI specifications for ammunition. If you had a blender to liquefy hot peppers, a supply of canisters, a way to pressurize the cans, and a label maker, you could become a defensive spray manufacturer in your garage tomorrow.

Skip the Scovilles — MCC content of 0.7 percent or higher is what you’re looking for.

Skip the Scovilles — MCC content of 0.7 percent or higher is what you’re looking for.


Does your OC manufacturer have a MSDS/SDS (safety data sheet) available on their website? If not, do not buy. If they have a SDS, does it list things like known carcinogens in the ingredients list? Here’s a hint: Some do, and invariably they’re among the brands recommended.

Does the OC manufacturer list the Major Capsaicinoid Content (MCC) of the product? If not, then your product is likely bullsh*t.

A dirty little secret of many OC makers is that they use terms like “10%”, and “SHUs” (Scoville Heat Units) in advertising, but have no real idea how “hot” their product is, because they do no quality control testing on the peppers they use, or the product they extract from it.

One easily researched scientific paper on this subject will tell the reader, “Estimating the SHU value based on the total capsaicinoid concentration of the pepper sprays suggested that the labeled SHU values were sometimes overstated by a factor of 100 times.” This isn’t good.

Look for a product with a MCC content of at least 0.7 to 0.8. Less than this is literally weak sauce. A good top end is the common “police strength” 1.33% MCC.

Your OC spray canister should have some sort of safety built into it to avoid accidental discharge. Pocket or purse NDs are all too common with some of the smaller keychain-sized units due to not having a safety at all, or not having a robust safety.

As far as form type for non-cop-duty belt use, I greatly prefer the usability of the “MK6” sized units, or the mini baton/Kubaton-style sprayers that have a reloadable insert. Both of these types of spray units are easy to use under duress and are very safe from accidental discharge.

Now, if you have all of that taken care of, what next? You need to choose what type of spray you want to use, which breaks down to stream-type sprays, cone-shaped mist, or gels. As Pat Rogers famously said, “The mission drives the gear train.” The spray type you choose depends on your circumstances.

The flip-to-side safeties (on right) are easy to inadvertently discharge in your purse or pocket.

The flip-to-side safeties (on right) are easy to inadvertently discharge in your purse or pocket.

Cone-shaped mist sprays have the advantage of a “shotgun” type pattern that makes it very easy to hit a bad guy in the face on the first shot and gives good coverage in doing so. The mist easily gets into the eyes, even around glasses, and causes severe short-term coughing in most people. This pattern also makes it easier to affect multiple bad guys at once, or allow the spray to be used as a barrier while retreating. Disadvantages are that this type of spray is most affected by the wind, and most prone to cross-contamination of bystanders, or yourself if you spray into the wind.

Streamers have a longer range, but require the user to be much more accurate in placement of a burst to get a solid hit. This accuracy requirement is where more than a few “OC failure” cases stories have stemmed from. Risk of cross contamination is much lower than with cone, as aerosolization is far less, and respiratory effects to the bad guy are diminished.

Gel sprays have a pattern much like a streamer, but are thicker and have as near to zero aerosolization as one can get in an OC spray. Respiratory effects are basically zero, so a hit to the bad guy’s eyes is a must for any useful effect. In my observation, both from being sprayed and from use on students in scenario training, the gels are noticeably slower to take effect versus cone- and stream-type sprays.

Something to shop for while you’re at it is inert training spray that matches what you’d like to carry. Inert spray is a valuable training adjunct to live OC and allows one to “target practice” safely and effectively, even at home.

I’ve seen more than one student change their mind as to what OC spray they thought they wanted to carry after getting some experience in class. Using the inert version against a live human being in practice drills makes all the difference. Trainers are readily available and inexpensive, especially compared to never spraying one at all until you need it.


After some years of playing with both strong-hand and weak-hand use of my spray, in both on- and off-duty scenarios, I strongly prefer using OC with my strong hand. This leaves me able to use a flashlight at the same time, and keep that light if I decide to ditch the spray and go to guns. Also, much of the time lately I am using a Kubaton-type “keystick” style sprayer while off-duty. Strong-hand use allows me to instantly transition to using the sprayer as an impact device, using the Pikal jab techniques taught by famed trainer Craig Douglas.

Another consideration is that when things go to guns, objects being carried in the strong hand are discarded when one goes for the draw; objects in the weak hand are often retained, and interfere with a good two-handed grip on the gun. Yes, this is a “training issue,” but it’s something I’ve noted several times in after action reviews of video of various confrontations.

From top down: Cone, stream, and gel shaped spray patterns.

From top down: Cone, stream, and gel shaped spray patterns.

Unlike other common aerosol products, OC spray should be used with a strong grip, allowing the thumb to activate the spray button, not the index finger. This is a fight, not a hair care event.

Use the spray in short one-second bursts. Just like with defensive pistol shooting, if you miss, or your shot doesn’t take effect, adjust your aim and give another burst. Overspraying your bad guy and using the whole can at once isn’t better. The OC that drips onto your assailant’s T-shirt is doing you very little good in a confrontation.

Having a plan B is key. OC spray works most of the time on most people, but just like anything else, including gunfire, it can fail. It’s best to be prepared for that, just in case.

Inert training spray

Inert training spray

I commonly teach various empty hand skills, and transitioning to the pistol as appropriate. This is another place where drilling with a trainer, or training partner, can pay huge dividends when one uses inert OC and dummy guns.

Regardless of which particular OC you end up with — train with it. Try different carry methodologies, and consult your local laws as to when it’s time for spicy treats, and when it’s time for the iron.

Use your thumb, not your pointer, for the best control. You aren’t using hair spray. Proper deployment method is seen on the right, improper on the left.

Use your thumb, not your pointer, for the best control. You aren’t using hair spray. Proper deployment method is seen on the right, improper on the left.

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