There’s a saying in self-defense training: “If he can’t see, can’t breathe or can’t stand up, he can’t fight.” This is a reminder of our most effective targets when using empty-hand tactics: the eyes, throat and knees. But the concept goes much deeper. Effective self defense is all about stopping your attackers by making them physically incapable of pressing their attacks. While hitting or kicking can certainly be effective, the more distance you put between you and your opponents, the safer you’ll be. For all these reasons, OC, or pepper spray, is an incredibly potent personal-defense tool.

OC is short for oleoresin capsicum, a chemical compound that irritates the eyes to cause tears, pain and even temporary blindness. It also affects breathing, causing debilitating coughing and choking. It was developed by Professor James H. Jenkins and Dr. Frank Hayes, D.V.M. at the University of Georgia in 1960 and first sold in 1963 under the brand name Halt Animal Repellant. Initially intended as a defense against vicious animals, it later attracted the attention of the FBI, who saw it as a potential alternative to physical confrontations or lethal force. In 1989, after three years of extensive testing by their Firearms Training Unit (FTU), the FBI authorized OC for use by its special agents and SWAT teams. Other law enforcement agencies followed suit, and by the early 1990s it was in widespread use by more than 3,000 agencies in the U.S.

By the late 1990s, pepper spray also became popular in the civilian sector. Affordable, effective and non-lethal, it is extremely convenient and legal to own and carry in most jurisdictions. These qualities make it a near-perfect personal-defense tool and have driven the development of many pepper-spray products for the civilian market. However, like any other tool, the most effective application of OC requires proper tactics and a precise understanding of OC’s limitations.

How Hot is Hot?

The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, a chemical derived from the fruit of plants in the genus Capsicum, which includes chili peppers. It is extracted by grinding the peppers into a fine powder and mixing that with an organic solvent like ethanol. When the ethanol is evaporated, what remains is oleoresin capsicum. This process and the peppers used in it determine the hotness of the base resin, which is measured in Scoville heat units (SHU). However, this alone does not determine how hot the spray is.

To deliver the capsaicin in the resin as an aerosol, it is mixed with an emulsifier that allows it to be suspended in water. Some sprays also contain an ultraviolet marking dye that can help in identifying an attacker if he or she is apprehended by the police. The potency of the final mixture is therefore a combination of the hotness of the base resin and the percentage of resin in the final solution. As such, although some manufacturers tout a high percentage of OC in their spray, it doesn’t necessarily reflect a more potent product. To ensure that your spray is effective, choose a reputable brand with a proven track record, preferably based on use by law enforcement agencies.

Choosing an OC Spray

OC comes in a wide variety of formats, ranging from ultra-compact sprays that attach to a keychain to super-sized home-defense units. Like any personal-protection weapon, if you hope to have it when you need it, you must make the commitment to carry it consistently. Convenience of carry is therefore a major consideration.
The smallest OC sprays are roughly the size of your thumb and can therefore be conveniently carried in a pocket or on a keychain. Some are also made to look like pens and can be carried just as easily. While these features make them easy to carry consistently, it can also make them difficult to use under stress when fine motor skills degrade. Small sprays also have limited capacity and some only offer a few brief bursts and limited range.

Slightly larger sprays (around 15 to 22 grams in size) often feature plastic or metal clips that allow them to be attached to the top of a pocket or the inside of a purse. Although they are larger and require more commitment to carry, they are easier to grasp and operate under stress and can deliver more shots than their smaller counterparts—an important consideration if you face multiple attackers. Larger spray cans might also serve as impact weapons if the spray itself doesn’t do the job. For serious personal protection, these sprays are typically your best choice.

Two other key aspects of choosing an OC spray are the spray pattern and the consistency of the solution. Spray patterns for liquid OC typically include cones and streams. A cone, also often called a fog, is a fine mist that has a broad pattern and lingers in the air. It requires less accuracy when sprayed and can be used in an area-denial mode. However, it has a shorter effective range and is easily affected by wind.

A stream is just as its name implies—a focused, narrow jet of spray. Streams have a longer range and are less affected by wind, but require greater accuracy to achieve the desired effect. Many street criminals have also learned how to shield themselves against streams by covering their faces with their arms, hats or clothing. Other types of pepper sprays include foams and gels. Like streams, these have a long effective range but also offer thicker viscosity, which sticks to the attacker. Again, these sprays require accuracy but buck the wind fairly well.

One final consideration is the type of trigger. Most smaller sprays are thumb operated, which is consistent with the gross motor skills that take over under stress. They also allow you to use your thumb as a guide for accuracy and to extend the spray away from your body. Kubotan-style OC sprays also have thumb triggers but fire from the bottom, requiring a bent-arm position that puts the spray closer to your own face when firing.

Spray and Tactics for Your Environment

When choosing a spray, it’s also important to consider the environment in which you plan to use it. For example, if you live somewhere that’s very windy, a stream or foam might be best because they will resist the effects of the wind better, get the spray on target and be less likely to blow back at you. Streams and foams, however, are basically direct-application tools, meaning that you need to face your attacker head on to deliver them.

Fogs, on the other hand, can be used with indirect tactics. For example, let’s say you’re walking alone and notice that you’re being followed by a suspicious person. You cross the street or make several sequential turns and realize that this person is still following you, so it’s probably not a coincidence. Rather than waiting for confirmation that this person’s up to no good, get your spray in your hand (if it isn’t already) and pick a choke point—a narrow area that your opponent must pass through in order to continue following you. As you walk through the choke point, subtly let loose a brief burst of spray. If the individual persists in following you, he or she will have to walk through the lingering mist to get to you. Odds are the choke point will live up to its name—you’ll hear the follower coming. A gagging and wheezing person will be much easier to outrun. If your opponent closes quickly, you’ve effectively eliminated any doubt that he or she is up to no good, so you can prepare to give a bigger taste of the spray.

Obviously, you must use this tactic responsibly and only when you’ve taken measures to establish the person as a potential threat. Indiscriminate use of pepper spray is illegal, so do the right thing. And while we’re on the topic of legalities, as with any weapon you must do the research to ensure that OC is legal in the area where you live and in the areas where you travel. Check both state-revised statutes and municipal laws if you are traveling to a large city, since municipal laws can often be more restrictive than state laws.

If you are going to carry a weapon for self defense, you owe it to yourself and everyone around you to be competent with it. Read the instructions that come with your spray and be thoroughly familiar with all the functions associated with your particular model. Most sprays have some type of mechanical safety to prevent accidental discharge, so you need to invest some practice time operating the safety and indexing the firing button. Once you’re comfortable with the basic mechanical operation of the spray, figure out where you’re going to carry it and settle on a single, consistent, accessible location that works with all your styles of dress. Then, practice drawing the spray from that location, orienting it properly in your hand by feel alone and removing the safety to prepare to fire. Practice this process diligently and consistently until it becomes second nature. Very importantly, make sure that you can do it all with only one hand, since your other hand may be defending or striking as you deploy your spray.

It is also important to understand the spray pattern and range of your specific OC. A real self-defense situation should not be the first time you fire your spray! The best pepper-spray brands offer inert training versions of their most popular sprays. These training sprays are excellent because they actually allow you to practice your skills without having to use live spray. This way you’ll see firsthand how far the spray shoots and how broad the spray pattern is, so you can accurately determine the effective range for direct application of the OC. Training sprays also enable you to combine all the elements of drawing, orienting, manipulating, gripping and firing your spray into a fluid sequence. Until you put all the pieces together into a smooth flow, you’re not really prepared to use OC spray under stress.


After you choose the right spray, learn to carry and deploy it and understand its effective range and pattern, you need to apply it properly. Your starting position for this should be a guard stance, with the spray in your strong hand, the strong-hand side of your body slightly back, and your support hand palm forward in a universal stop gesture. In this position, you would use verbal skills to set boundaries and de-escalate the situation if possible. To ensure that you are prepared to react instantly, remove the safety on your spray and index the firing button. If your attacker does not comply and you are forced to bring the spray into action, drive the spray straight forward as much as the required grip allows, keeping the spray on your line of sight to the target. Make sure the spray hand extends beyond your supporting “guard” hand so it doesn’t block the stream. If you are using a stream spray, target your opponent’s face directly or—if he or she is trying to dodge the spray—the upper chest. The upper chest is larger and less mobile, and spray will still splash up into your opponent’s face. If you are using a cone-style spray, spray in an S-shaped pattern to create a wall of mist between you and the attacker. If the spray has the desired effect, seize the opportunity to escape immediately. If it does not, take advantage of the attacker’s diminished capacity and kick the attacker’s shins or knees to destroy his or her mobility so you can escape.

Pepper spray can be an extremely potent personal-protection tool, as long as you choose one that’s appropriate to your needs and you train to employ it.

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