You Should Carry Pepper Spray — With or Without Your Gun

As gun owners, it can easily become second nature to holster up with your daily carry without considering other self-defense options. Of course, it’s understandable that you don’t want your daily pocket dump to involve a ridiculous number of tools. But how about when you know you’re going to be in a non-permissive environment? Do you just decide to simply leave your gun at home without stopping to think about what other tools you could carry to defend yourself? After all, it’s smart to have more than one tool in your self-defense toolbox. We’re going to explain why you should consider making pepper spray your go-to secondary defensive tool (and how to choose one).

pepper spray package
Pepper spray is a great less-than-lethal option for defense against attacks. (Photo: Sabre Red)

What is pepper spray?

Generally speaking, pepper spray is exactly what it sounds like: a spray designed to cause severe eye and respiratory irritation on contact. The specifics of the strength of ingredients tend to vary by manufacturer, but oleoresin capsicum is usually the active ingredient. Agents used as propellants also vary. There are a lot of different manufacturers in the pepper spray industry, some of which are better known than others—and some that work a lot more effectively than others. All pepper sprays are not made equal.

How does pepper spray work?

Pepper spray works by causing a burning sensation in the mucus membranes. This is why you don’t spray it only at the eyes but at the eyes, nose, and mouth. Spreading it out boosts efficacy quite a bit. Aside from the burning, pepper spray can cause watering eyes and nose, temporarily impaired vision, coughing, and pain in surrounding tissue.

Is pepper spray really non-lethal?

It’s more accurate to state that pepper spray is a less-than-lethal self-defense option. For the average person, pepper spray is simply going to cause intense discomfort—and it does eventually resolve, anywhere from half an hour to hours later. However, pepper spray can have a more severe effect on certain individuals.

For example, if an attacker has a pre-existing condition, such as asthma, the use of pepper spray is likely to have a far greater impact and could cause death. That isn’t the norm, but it can happen, and it’s good to be aware of that.

Because pepper spray is considered less-than-lethal, it is far more widely accepted than firearms. It’s legal in the entire country although there are variations in bottle sizes allowed and where and when it can be carried (and how old you have to be).

pom pepper spray
POM is a great brand of pepper spray that’s well worth adding to your gear. (Photo: POM Industries)

Is a gun better than pepper spray for self-defense?

So, is a gun better than pepper spray? The answer is both yes and no. A firearm is certainly a more effective tool for stopping an immediate, credible threat. Not only is a gun more likely to actually stop the threat but the threat is also likely to stay down. However, only carrying a firearm for self-defense is a little bit like only having a hammer. It doesn’t give you options for escalating force or scenarios where pepper spray is a more reasonable reaction to the threat (yes, those exist).

There are times when pepper spray should be your go-to, even when you’re carrying both the pepper spray and your gun. And, of course, there are going to be instances when you only have pepper spray as an option because you don’t have your carry gun. And just like the way you need proper training with your firearm, it’s smart to get pepper spray training so you can recognize pepper spray-appropriate situations as well as how to use it.

What kind of pepper spray should you get?

Currently, the two most popular and effective brands of pepper spray are Pom and Sabre Red. That doesn’t mean other brands aren’t also worth considering but simply that those two have proven to be top performers. This means a greater burning sensation, faster onset of burning, and more reliable propellant systems.

There are quite a few types of pepper spray including fogger-style sprays, stream sprays, gels, and foams. Each has its pros and cons. Fogger sprays deliver a broader spraying area because, as the name suggests, the spray comes out in a wider aerosol form. That can be nice because it means the pepper spray has better odds of contacting the assailant without the need to aim quite so precisely. Of course, fogger sprays also have a shorter range and because they deliver a lighter coating, they might not be as effective. Let’s consider the other types.

Pepper gels and foams have some of the same pros and cons. Although they might be considered preferable if it’s windy, they do have a somewhat limited range. Also, the use of a gel or foam means you’re far less likely to accidentally spray an innocent bystander (or yourself). They do typically take longer to take effect than fogger and stream sprays. That doesn’t mean they don’t cause burning—they do—only that it can take precious moments longer for the solution to sink into the attacker’s tissue.

Stream sprays are considered the gold standard by many in the self-defense world because they give the user the greatest effective range and allow more precise aiming. With a stream pepper spray the attacker can be targeted with a more concentrated stream that’s going to hit where you aim. The downside is that streams do require specific aiming, and as dynamic and fast as an attack takes place, you might have difficulty getting it on target.

sabre red options
A visual layout of some options from Sabre. (Photo: Sabre Red)

Does pepper spray work on everyone?

The answer to whether pepper spray is truly effective on everyone is both yes, and no. The average attacker is likely to at least slow down, if not halt entirely when the burning effect hits their mucus membranes. How long that slow down or pause lasts depends on the person, which is just one reason you must escape to safety as quickly as possible.

However, there are people pepper spray doesn’t work well on. This includes people who are also adrenalized or otherwise enabled by chemicals such as illegal substances.

There’s also a subset of people who can become more aggressive and infuriated when sprayed. All these things don’t mean you shouldn’t use pepper spray, only that you need to be informed and aware of the realities of its use. Pepper spray isn’t magic and doesn’t work equally well on assailants. There are pros and cons to the different types of sprays and there’s always going to be a chance you’ll run into an attacker it doesn’t have the desired effect on.

Should you get pepper spray?

Even with all the pros and cons, pepper spray is a great option for use as a less-than-lethal self-defense tool. It can be carried on its own or as a secondary option along with your firearm. Like guns, you should get training with pepper spray. You should also do your research before simply grabbing a random brand or type off the rack. Also, keep in mind pepper spray is only as helpful as your ability to access it, so if it’s buried in the bottom of your purse or otherwise inaccessible, it’s not going to do you much good. If you’re going to carry pepper spray, make sure it’s accessible and that you know how to use it. Pepper spray makes a great less-than-lethal weapon and is a solid addition to any gun owner’s self-defense gear.

Kat Ainsworth Stevens is a long-time outdoor writer, official OGC (Original Gun Cognoscenti), and author of Handgun Hunting: a Comprehensive Guide to Choosing and Using the Right Firearms for Big and Small Game. Der Teufel Katze has written for a number of industry publications (print and online) and edited some of the others, so chances are you've seen or read her work before, somewhere. A woman of eclectic background and habits, Kat has been carrying concealed for over two decades, used to be a farrier, and worked for a long time in emergency veterinary medicine. She prefers big bores, enjoys K9 Search & Rescue, and has a Master's Degree in Pitiless Snarkastic Delivery.

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