By Matthew Schafer
Copyright 2009, All Rights Reserved
Recently an article ran in Black Belt Magazine entitled "The Spice of Life" where the author discussed the uses of pepper spray and made the assertion that pepper spray was the "end-all-be-all" self-defense weapon. After that article ran people wrote letters to the editor disputing the author, and then the author wrote back disputing the letters. The basic area of contention was the effectiveness of pepper spray against an attacker and so I'm writing this article to address that matter.
The author stated that when sprayed with pepper spray every single human, or animal, would suffer its effects and stop in their tracks, unable to continue their assault. Those who wrote in stated personal experience where pepper spray was not effective. Many stated that they were either soldiers or police officers who had to be sprayed with pepper spray during their training, or had used pepper spray in a real violent encounter, and that they'd seen many people not be affected by it or even laugh at being sprayed. The statistic put forth is that one in every ten people is not affected by pepper spray.
Personally I think the "1 in 10" statistic is a bunch of crap. For years I've worked with pepper spray and I've never met anyone that was either not effected by it or could fight through its effects. Now, I have seen people who where not 100% incapacitated after being sprayed but they could not negate the effects of the pepper spray through force of will or being "tough". After being sprayed these particular people were still on their feet but they were in a lot of pain, couldn't open their eyes, and were having trouble breathing. They were blind, grunting, coughing, using one hand to rub the pepper spray off their faces, and using the other hand to search for their opponent that they'd never find unless they walked up to them and allowed themselves to be grabbed.
I believe that the reason some people were unable to get the desired effects with pepper spray is mainly due to human error. So here I will discuss the four human error based reasons that I believe have caused the "1 in 10" statistic to come about.
Reason #1: Not actually using pepper spray. "Pepper spray" is a specific term for a specific product but it has come to be used generally to refer to all types of defense sprays. In reality there are chemical sprays (mace and tear gas) and pepper sprays. Chemical sprays are made using either a chemical called "orthoclorobenzalmalonitrile" (called "CS" for short) or a chemical called "alphachloroacetaphenone" (called "CN" for short). "CS" and "CN" are both chemicals that irritate the moist porous linings of the eyes, nose, and throat and cause the body to respond by trying to flush them out by the involuntary watering of the eyes, running of the nose, coughing, and in some cases vomiting. This is very unpleasant and painful and in most individuals it is quite debilitating.
There are several problems with using "CS" and "CN" to stop a violent attacker; in most cases the effects aren't that severe and their stopping power comes down to the attacker's pain tolerance and willingness to endure the discomfort caused by the chemical. Some people actually can fight through the effects of various chemical sprays which is why more and more police departments have stop using them in favor of actual pepper spray. Also, some people's biology renders them partially or even fully immune to the effects of both "CS" and "CN". In most cases where people spray someone with "pepper spray" and the person is unaffected, or only effected in a minor way, it is because they're actually using a chemical spray (mace) with the active ingredient being "CS" or "CN" and not real pepper spray.
Another factor is that many studies have shown that it can take up to 30 seconds for someone to feel the effects of "CS" or "CN". So you can come at me and I can give you a face full of mace and you're still going to have time to stab me to death before you succumb to its effects.
The active ingredient in actual pepper spray is "Oleoresin Capsicum" (called "OC" for short) and instead of being a chemical compound it is concentration of pepper extracts. Instead of irritating the moist porous tissues of the eyes, nose, and throat it inflames them in a way that is quite severe. It's like getting hot sauce in your eyes, only about a thousand times worse. It does not matter how big, strong, determined, or skilled someone is, or if they are under the influence of drugs, if they get "OC" in their face it will become inflamed. Their eyes will water and be forced shut so they cannot see, their nose will run uncontrollably, their throat will become inflamed and their breathing will be affected so they will cough uncontrollably, and throughout their face and throat they will experience a severe and extremely painful burning sensation. Not being able to see and having problems breathing they will want to sit or lay down and wipe the "OC" out of their eyes, however, they'll end up rubbing the "OC" deeper into their eyes and spreading around their face, helping it enter their nose and mouth. The more they try to wipe it away the more they spread it.
Imagine taking a habanero pepper (one of the hottest peppers), cutting it in half, and then rubbing it all over your face and in your eyes. The result would be excruciatingly painful and you wouldn't be able to fight anyone right afterwards, not effectively anyway. The strength/heat of pepper spray is measured in "Scoville Heat Units" (SHU) and the rating of that hadanero pepper is between 200,000 to 300,000 SHU. Most pepper sprays (with "OC" being the active ingredient) rate at about 2,000,000 SHU, so the pepper spray would be about 9 to 10 times hotter and the effects 9 or 10 times more severe.
On several occasions when I've been training with pepper spray I've had the wind blow a small amount back in my face and with only a very small amount coming into contact with my skin I can say that I'd never want to be sprayed with a full dose. Only an extremely small amount came back at me and it felt like my face was on fire; I had a very hard time keeping my eyes open and was coughing uncontrollably. Many people have talked about dogs not being effected by pepper spray but again they used "CS" or "CN" . One day while I was out for a walk a rottweiler charged me and I turned my head and sprayed in its direction and as soon as it entered the cloud of spray it stopped in its tracks and then started rubbing its face in the dirt and wheezing.
The effects of "OC" occur rapidly so there is no waiting 15-30 seconds for your attacker to stop and given a sufficient dose of pepper spray someone can have their vision and breathing be disrupted for 45 minutes or longer. There was a case in
Simply put, using "OC" has been proven to be effective while "pepper sprays" that are actually just chemical sprays consisting of "CS" or "CN" have a level of effectiveness that I wouldn't bet my life on.
It should also be noted that some pepper sprays are actually "pepper sprays". There are many pepper sprays on the market that do contain a small amount of "OC" but their active ingredient is really "CS" or "CN". Years back I was talking to a potential client on the phone and when I mentioned pepper spray she became somewhat hostile. She told me a story about how she had used pepper spray on a date rapist and it hadn't worked. She mentioned that she still had the pepper spray and I asked her to bring it in with her when she came in for training and sure enough it was "pepper spray". It was a cheap product she purchased for $10 in the sporting goods department at a grocery store and under "active ingredient" it said:
Alphachloroacetaphenone, Red Pepper. It was primarily "CN" and only a small amount of "OC" and that is why it didn't work.
If you buy pepper spray you want Oleoresin Capsicum (sometimes listed as "OC" or just "Red Pepper") to be the one and only ingredient. I've tested a lot of brands on the market and the only one I carry and provide to my clients is "Sabre Red: Maximum Strength Pepper Spray". I firmly believe that Sabre Red provides the best pepper spray on the market and having spent nearly 23 years in the self-defense industry I wouldn't carry anything else.
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Reason #2: Using expired sprays. Pepper spray ("OC") only retains its maximum potency for four years. There are a lot of people out there walking around with expired canisters of pepper spray and they don't know it.
When you buy pepper spray you should only buy it from a reputable dealer, make sure that it has the expiration date printed on it before you buy it, and then check the date as soon as you get it. I know quite a few people who try to save money by buying pepper spray online for around $6 a canister and when they get it they find out that it is either already expired or very close to expiring. If they used those fancy novelty sprays on an attacker I don't believe it would do anything other than make them angry.
Reason #3: Used too small of dose. I saw a video on youtube awhile back that showed army personnel doing a drill where they got sprayed with pepper spray and then had to run an obstacle course. My first problem with that is that I doubt they used "OC" because if they did I don't think the soldier could have seen to negotiate the course. I also know that most law enforcement agencies, military included, use chemical sprays instead of "OC" so chances are that is was just mace.
My second problem is that the soldier was only given about a half second dose. In a dose that small you can't guarantee that it will even get in the eyes, nose, or mouth. In a self-defense situation you spray the person until they grab their face and make strange noises. In my experience, as soon as you spray someone in the face with "OC" they stop their attack, but from the time you spray someone until the time they turn away and start coughing it can be around 3 seconds. 3 seconds worth of "OC" in your face is a lot and the effects will be extreme. I got maybe a quarter of a second worth of blow back in my face and that was enough for me, a direct 3 second spray in the face is enough to disable anyone.
Reason #4: They missed their target. When you spray someone you want to aim for the center of their face so the spray will get into their eyes, nose, and mouth. However, a lot of the times people miss. I've seen a lot of videos on the internet as well as clips from COPS and other TV shows where a police officer sprays in the general direction of the suspects face, and then acts surprised when they don't drop. Often they start shaking the can to make sure it's mixed up before they spray again, as if that makes a difference.
It's just like everything else: you have to hit your target. It doesn't matter if you're using a fist, a knife, a gun, or a defense spray, if you don't hit your target you're not going to put the person down. Most people I know have pepper spray but don't train with it. I always recommend that people buy four canisters: one for your house, one for your car, one to carry, and the other to train with. You have to spray it and you have to practice with it if you expect to be able to use it under duress. You have to be able to look at someone and then spray it right into the center of their face. I always tell people to look at the tip of their attacker's nose because if they can get it on their nose they it will splash both up into the eyes and down to the mouth.
If someone tells me that they sprayed someone in the face with pepper spray and it didn't stop them within a second or two I ask them if "OC" was the active ingredient, and the I ask them how their targeting was. Often people completely miss the face and instead get it in their hair, where it takes 10 or 20 seconds to drip down to their eyes, or maybe they just get it on their clothes and they don't get it into their face until they use their sleeve to rub their face awhile later.
Most people don't think about targeting, they just point and shoot. Point and shoot doesn't work effectively fist or a foot, it sure doesn't work with a firearm, and it doesn't work with pepper spray either.