The Cornered Cat

Full disclosure right up front: I do not carry pepper spray, and have had very little direct experience with it. The information below came from my notes when I took a combined class about pepper spray and short baton (Kubotan, Persuader) use a few years back. I’m putting these notes on the web to encourage folks to do their own research, because there are a lot of myths about spray out there. The stuff isn’t the magic we all wish it were, but it can be a good addition to your defense plans once you understand how to work within its limitations.

~ Kathy

The Basic Facts

Pepper spray has been on the civilian market since the early 1990’s, and is currently in use by thousands of police departments across the United States. Except in very rare circumstances, it is non-lethal. A few very rare individuals have no reaction to the stuff at all. But the vast majority of people do react to it in strong and predictable ways, and those reactions make pepper spray a viable means of defense in some situations.

Pepper spray is made from extracts of cayenne pepper. Properly called Oleoresin Capsicum, or OC, its effectiveness is measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). It comes in different sizes and different concentrations. Sizes range from tiny enough to hang on your keychain (.5 oz) up to big enough to stop a bear (9 ounces or more) … if the bear is feeling cooperative.

Concentrations of OC, the active ingredient in pepper spray, range from 5% up to around 20% or even more. While a higher concentration is generally better, the concentration isn’t the only consideration. You also want the “hottest” hot you can get, which would be the highest SHU number possible. Most OC products will be marked with both numbers, the SHU and the percentage of OC contained within the inert carrier. Steer clear of those products which are not marked with both these numbers, because the chances are that the number they’re not giving you is unacceptably low.

Note for College Students

Pepper spray is sometimes prohibited by school policy even where otherwise legal. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this is gradually changing. If your school policy currently prohibits students from carrying pepper spray on campus, but it’s otherwise legal in your jurisdiction, you’ve got a decent chance of getting the policy overturned if you are willing to work at it.

Here’s where it gets complicated: neither the SHU nor the concentration percentage tells the whole story by itself, so you’ll need to find a way to take both numbers into account while you are shopping. For example, say you have a can of 15% OC with a claimed SHU of 1,000,000, and you want to compare it with a can of 10% OC with an SHU of 2,000,000. There really isn’t a common denominator between these two cans, so which one would be more effective in use? To determine that, you can multiply the concentration (15% or .15) by the claimed SHU (1,000,000). This gives you a common denominator which allows you to directly compare any two sprays for which you have both numbers.

Pepper spray is not the same thing as Mace. Or rather, it isn’t always. Mace is a brand name which originally applied only to a particular type of chemical irritant more commonly known as “tear gas.” The spray sold today under the Mace brand name is generally an OC spay, not tear gas. But just to keep things confusing, in some jurisdictions it is possible to purchase Mace brand products which combine tear gas with OC. These products are decidedly not legal in most places, however, and generally offer few advantages over a good-quality OC product.

Pepper spray itself is not legal everywhere. In some states and cities, it is flat-out illegal. In others, it is regulated like firearms are, and carrying a can of OC might require a carry permit just as carrying a handgun does. Some states have limitations on the percentage of the active ingredient, while others regulate the size of the container. If you are not certain that pepper spray is legal in your jurisdiction, and a basic web search does not turn up the information, call your local police station and ask.

Physical Effects

What are the effects of OC?

These physical effects generally begin to occur within five seconds of the time the spray hits the skin, and the sensations can last an hour or more. Five seconds may not sound like much, but it is a very long time in street-fighting terms — certainly enough time for an attacker to pull the trigger of a gun or to make a killing thrust with a knife. This is a crucial fact to keep in mind as you formulate your defense plan. Remember, too, that “five seconds” is a very general time frame and refers to when the OC begins to take effect. Depending on the situation, the physical response may take much longer to begin — or it may not happen at all.

Different people react to OC differently, and the reactions can range from very mild clear through life-threatening. People who do not react to it at all are extremely rare. But even though such folks are extremely rare, they do exist. If you’re going to use OC for defense, you should have an immediate plan for what you will do if the OC does not have the intended effect, and the attacker keeps coming. The most important thing to remember is never, ever quit until your attacker does.

Types of OC

OC spray comes out of the can in three basic patterns: a cone, a stream, and a foam. The cone pattern is basically similar to the pattern from a can of Lysol, while the stream and the foam are both similar in pattern to different wasp-killing products you can buy at the garden store. Also, there are new OC products on the market (most notably Kimber’s LifeAct Guardian Angel), which do not function like an aerosol but instead propel one or two doses of OC using a pyrotechnic charge.

The cone works best when shot at close range directly into the attacker’s face. It quickly spreads out to affect a larger area, so it requires the least accuracy in aiming. It is quickest into the attacker’s eyes, and is most likely to get down into the attacker’s breathing passages and lungs, thus causing quicker and more definite incapacitation than the other two aerosol spray patterns. It is quickest to disperse, especially on a windy day. The cone pattern is likely to affect the user, though not as much as it will affect the target. Because it is the quickest in action and requires the least precision in aiming, a cone pattern OC spray is probably the best choice for most people.

The stream can affect the attacker’s skin and eyes, but will only affect the eyes if there’s a solid hit to the face. It may affect breathing passages, but more slowly and with less intensity than the effect given by the cone. A good effect is more likely if the stream hits the attacker square in the nose or mouth while the attacker is inhaling. A stream which misses the face entirely will affect only the attacker’s skin and will neither blind him nor affect his breathing. On the plus side, the jet of OC is easily visible, so it may be possible to “walk it in” to the desired target if the initial burst is poorly aimed.

The foam pattern is often used inside prisons and jails, where either of the other two patterns might contaminate the air in an enclosed space. With the foam, it is easiest to see what you are doing and where it has hit. However, I am aware of at least two correctional facilities which no longer use the foam because inmates have learned to quickly swipe the stuff off them and throw or shove it back onto the guards — a messy and painful situation.

The brand name most frequently recommended by the cops I know is Fox Labs, but there are many others on the market.

Since I have not had the opportunity to handle the newer, single-use OC dispensers in person, there’s little I can say about them. Consider this an invitation to drop me a note and enlighten me on the subject.

No matter which OC spray pattern is chosen, there is a significant chance that the user will receive a dose of OC along with the assailant. Expect this and plan for it! Remember that different people experience OC differently, so unless you have been exposed to OC before, you really do not know how your own personal body will respond to an accidental hit of OC while you are defending yourself. The best way to prepare yourself, emotionally and physically, for this very likely possibility is to experience the spray’s effects for yourself, allowing someone to spray you in a carefully controlled setting. This means taking a class on the use of the spray, during which you will have the opportunity to get sprayed with OC so you may find out exactly how you respond to it. Once you have experienced it, you will know what your body does in response to OC contamination. In a good class you will also learn techniques which may allow you to fight through the effects of OC if you are ever sprayed, either inadvertently or by an attacker.

If you are not willing to risk OC contamination when you defend yourself, or are unwilling to experience being sprayed in a controlled setting beforehand, and thus do not know how you personally respond to the stuff, I very, very, very strongly recommend that you do not carry OC for defense.

Pepper Spray in Use

Now that the basic facts are established, it’s time to discuss actually using the stuff. There are a lot of myths about pepper spray out there, and perhaps a lot of false expectations about what it can do. I am going to try to give an honest, balanced view of both the good things and the bad things about relying on pepper spray for self-defense. And to be sure you know where I am coming from, here is my bottom line, right up front: I think the stuff can be extremely useful in some circumstances, but I don’t believe it’s the magic talisman we all wish it were.

Now to the nitty-gritty.

A major reason that OC spray works well for defense is that — unlike nearly any other form of defense short of a firearm — the defender does not have to physically touch the attacker or get within the attacker’s grabbing distance in order to use it. That’s a very important consideration, not to be taken lightly. Staying out of arm’s reach is a major goal for someone who just wants to get away from an attacker and go home safe!

There’s another important reason to make staying out of reach and immediately running away your primary goals. That’s because of the risk of cross-contamination. Of course, you’re a smart, well-prepared person, so before you purchased OC spray you gathered up your courage, got yourself to a class, and found out how you personally respond to the stuff. If you did that, you know you don’t want to risk the cross-contamination you would experience if you had to grapple with the attacker after spraying him. Your best bet for avoiding cross-contamination is to spray, dodge, and flee.

A great deal of pepper spray’s effectiveness depends upon the blinding reaction it creates. OC makes the attacker’s eyes go blurry with painfully irritating tears, and then slam solidly shut. But if the attacker already has you in his physical grasp, simply blinding him may not be enough, and it won’t help you as much as it would if, after you blinded him, he did not know exactly where you were. Once he has you in his grip, he does not have to see you in order to keep holding onto you and controlling your movement. If you’re given a choice between OC’ing an attacker who already has ahold of you, or not fighting back at all, by all means, FIGHT! But try to avoid letting it get to that point, whenever possible. Avoid letting him get his hands on you; if he does, plan to fight your way to safety, using the OC to briefly distract him as you fight your way free. Do not expect the spray to do all the work for you.

Avoid getting bear-hugged by an enraged, blinded assailant by dodging sharply to the side as you spray, and then flee as quickly as you can.

For all of these reasons, whenever you use OC spray on an assailant who is coming toward you, you should immediately jump or dodge to the side, getting outside your attacker’s “lunge zone” as quickly as humanly possible. Then keep going. If possible, don’t simply run from danger, but run toward safety, fleeing with a goal in mind. Be aware that the spray may not prevent the attacker from physically grabbing onto you if you do not step off his line of attack. He may simply lunge straight forward with arms outstretched, hoping to grab you before you escape. Avoid getting bear-hugged by an enraged, blinded assailant by dodging sharply to the side as you spray. Then flee as quickly as you can.

The element of surprise

One of OC’s major weaknesses is that so many criminals already know exactly how they will physically react to its use. If they’ve been arrested before, they may have been sprayed while resisting arrest. They may have been exposed to it in prison, either getting sprayed directly or getting cross-contaminated when another prisoner was sprayed near them. This means that a lot of the startle-shock-claustrophobic reaction simply will not happen to these people: they’ve felt it before, and know that the feeling is temporary and non-damaging. The threat of OC use is, to such people, no particular threat.

Closely related to this, someone who knows the spray is coming can signficantly reduce its effects by taking a few simple physical actions such as holding his breath or blocking his eyes from the spray. If he expects to be sprayed, he can mentally prep himself to do what it takes to fight through the spray’s effects, pouncing before the spray can hit him or take full effect. Even after being sprayed, he can reach up and force an eyelid open with one hand while he shoots, stabs, or bludgeons his intended victim. He is by no means out of the fight … if he knows the OC is coming and has mentally prepared for it.

This means that OC makes a particularly ineffective bargaining tool. Many criminals aren’t afraid of it at all, and warning one of these folks that you are prepared to use OC just enrages them and gives them time to prepare for an all-out fight. If you’re going to use the stuff, your best bet for maximum effectiveness is to use it unexpectedly. Do not warn anyone you have it or that you are preparing to use it. Keep the element of surprise on your side!

Carrying OC

The practical issues with carrying and using a can of OC to defend yourself are very similar to the practical issues of carrying a gun. Realistically, the tiny little keychain containers of OC you see around just aren’t very comforting. Most self-defense instructors will tell you that you’ll need at least a two-second burst of OC, repeated more than once as needed. The keychain jobbies just aren’t large enough to supply that. Larger containers are better in use, of course — but the flip side is, they’re more awkward to carry and more difficult to conceal. 2 Which of these factors, size or ease of carry, is most important? That’s an individual choice, deeply dependent upon your own priorities and circumstances.

As with any other weapon, the OC deep in your purse (or buried in the glove box, stuffed under the seat of the car, or shoved into the back of the nightstand drawer) is not going to be a lot of use to you when the crunch comes. If you need it at all, you’ll need it in a hurry, and you simply won’t have enough time to shovel through your purse or rummage under the seat to find the tool you need to defend yourself.

Fortunately, there are no laws against “brandishing” a canister of OC. As you walk alone to your car in a dark, deserted parking lot after work, you can simply dig the OC can out of your purse and hold it casually by your side while you are walking, relaxed but prepared to defend yourself if necessary.

“I don’t want to hurt the attacker …”

Women interested in self-defense really have it tough in our society. On the one hand, we’ve all heard the statistics about rape and violent crime. We all want to protect our children and defend our homes. On the other hand, these desires often conflict with the societal message that it’s not feminine to hurt other people — even an attacker intent on maiming or killing someone you love.

For those who are not yet ready to defend themselves with ultimate force, 3 pepper spray can be a godsend. It allows an innocent person to defend herself with the knowledge that her action will not permanently harm the attacker. That knowledge can enable someone who does not want to hurt an assailant to nevertheless take the immediate, forceful steps she needs to take in order to get home safely.

Closely related to this, one cool thing about pepper spray is that it can be used in situations where lethal force would absolutely not be legally or ethically appropriate. Its aftereffects are generally very minimal, even non-existent. It can legally be used to prevent a simple assault, not just in the extreme event of a deadly threat. This means it can often be used sooner and more decisively, with less legal risk. Its use may protect the defender from having to make the ultimate choice to defend herself with a lethal weapon.

If not wanting to hurt an assailant is important to you, it is especially important that you understand that your best bet for protecting yourself and getting appropriate aid to the attacker is to flee immediately after using the spray. Do not stick around to see how it worked or to offer comfort to the downed attacker. Flee to safety, and call the authorities to render aid if it’s needed.

What about animals?

Pepper spray works with varying reliability on animals, its effectiveness depending upon the reason for the attack, the surrounding circumstances, and the defender’s aim. Dogs and bears may be particularly vulnerable to OC, because of their highly sensitive, mucous-covered noses. Even if the spray itself does not stop the animal, sometimes the body language from a determined defender will. Whether you have pepper spray or not, it’s important to note that turning your back on an advancing animal, or running from it, will often trigger the animal’s most basic predator instincts. It’s often safest to stand your ground and prepare to aggressively defend yourself and your loved ones.

Animal lovers should note that OC spray will do no permanent harm to someone’s best friend, but may prevent you from being mauled and maimed for life — if the spray gets to the right place. Remember to aim directly at the animal’s nose, eyes, and open mouth. Spraying the animal’s fur-protected body will not help. Use short bursts, and aim for the mucous membranes. When the canister is empty, don’t just toss it away. If the animal is still there, shove the canister right down its throat, hard. Use everything within reach to defend yourself, and don’t quit until the animal does. Use everything you’ve got to defend yourself.

As with protecting yourself from a human assailant, the most realistic way to use OC on an attacking animal is to be prepared with the canister already in your hand when the attack begins. This means that if you make a habit of hiking or walking outdoors along a trail known for dog or bear attacks, it is probably a good idea to simply carry the canister in one hand as you walk, or place it in a large jacket pocket if you have one. Don’t bury it in the bottom of your backpack, because it won’t do you any good down there.


Because I am severely asthmatic, I’m unwilling to risk the effects of OC cross-contamination, and thus do not carry it myself. But I believe it can be a good defensive tool, when properly and responsibly used by someone who understands its effects and its limitations.

If you do use the stuff on an attacker, your best immediate-action drill is to spray, dodge, and flee. Do not just stand there! Dodge to the side as you spray, then run away.

After you spray the assailant, there will be a brief gap while the spray takes effect. During that 3 to 5 seconds, a lot can happen. Be prepared for this gap and have a plan. Never expect the spray to do all your work for you; be prepared to fight your way to safety if you must.

And if you have to fight …

… Fight like a cornered cat.


  1. Or he may not. See this article for a real-life encounter where OC did not have full effect — although using pepper spray did buy time and enable the intended victim to defend herself another way.
  2. Didn’t I tell you the practical issues were similiar to carrying firearms?
  3. Many people never will reach that decision point, and that is absolutely okay. The choice of how to defend your own life is yours alone. Nobody can or should make that decision for you. It’s deeply personal and cuts right through some very thorny emotional and ethical issues, after all.