WON Landing Page OCT 2022

Sara Ahrens’ OffBeat: Concealed carry alternatives — pepper spray

With all of the recent attention by the media surrounding concealed carry laws, and the seemingly constant controversy over firearms, I recognize that there are some women who are uncomfortable carrying a concealed firearm. It’s important that these women become aware of the other options for self-defense. These other options are unique, and require education for deployment and appropriate application. Additionally, many lethal and less-lethal options have serious limitations. Before accepting the responsibilities of carrying or using such tools, the user should understand and be comfortable with the potential outcomes. Unlike a firearm, other options don’t always have an immediate, or desired effect.

Proximity required

A firearm is an obvious advantage because it’s capable of stopping deadly force at a distance. The fundamental drawback in choosing anything else is that it will require the user to be in close proximity to the aggressor. Once a force option is made, it is difficult to change tactics when it fails, especially if 1 hand of the deployer is occupied. Throwing the tool away may actually arm the aggressor. From my experience running training classes, when police officers chose ineffective force options, they got stuck in a cycle of repeated and failed applications leading to increased injury and excessive force complaints. Those who choose to defend themselves must be prepared to transition to an alternative in the event that their first attempt fails.

Sara Ahrens. Photo courtesy of History.com.From 2007 to 2010, I conducted an analysis of my agency’s use of force. I determined how often our officers used force, the force options they selected, and the effectiveness of their force applications. I read approximately 1,500 police use-of-force reports each year to prepare 2 reports of my own: an in-depth internal analysis and an abbreviated external report. Although the external reports do not provide information regarding the success and failure rates experienced by our officers, I am familiar with what works, what doesn’t and why. Our officers used the most effective tool other than a firearm: Oleoresin Capsicum (OC), also known as pepper spray.

Physical effects of pepper spray

The use of organic ingredients to incapacitate others dates back approximately 2,300 years ago. It is believed that the Chinese filled rice paper with ground pepper and spices in order to throw it into the faces of their enemies. Presently, pepper spray is derived from cayenne pepper, which contains 5 different capsaicins — the basis for pepper spray. The physical effects of capsaicin include;

  • Irritation to the mucous membranes
  • Irritation to the respiratory system
  • Involuntary closing of the eyes
  • Running of the nose
  • Difficulty breathing

Although most people understand the effects of pepper spray, they underestimate its effects on the user and overestimate the effects on others.

Minimizing exposure

Many police officers do not use pepper spray unless it is absolutely required because it doesn’t discriminate. It not only affects the intended target, but also everyone else in the area. It’s not unheard of for officers to unintentionally spray themselves or others during an intense fight. It happens more than anyone admits. Minimizing exposure to pepper spray can occur through the selection of disbursement method, proper deployment and location of deployment.

Pepper spray is available in 3 methods of disbursement: spray/cone, stream or foam/gel. For brevity’s sake, the best option is stream, because it allows for a more direct hit to the target area, while minimizing contamination of other areas. If a spray disbursement method is selected, the user should be aware that, like any aerosol, the direction of the mist is influenced by wind direction and speed. Foam or gel is also a poor choice because it can be wiped off by the aggressor and thrown back at the deployer.

Proper deployment of pepper spray might seem obvious — point and spray. It’s actually not that easy. First of all, the proper method of dispensing the canister is to place the thumb on the actuator (top of canister). The method of deployment is contingent on your spray pattern.

  • Stream = Horizontal pattern, ear to ear/across the eyes
  • Cone/Spray = Vertical pattern, up and down/center of face
  • Foam/Gel = Circular motion/around face

When choosing to use pepper spray, be aware of your location. You may want to reconsider pepper spray if you are in a confined location, and have other options available. Know the wind direction and stay upwind from the spray to minimize contamination.


Pepper spray is one of many tools developed for the use of less-lethal force. Like any tool, lethal or not, we must recognize that some people are impervious to pain. They have a mindset, or even a mental condition that seemingly allows them to fight through anything. Regardless of how you choose to protect yourself, always think one step ahead and remain vigilant.


Sara Ahrens recommends that you get training in any means self-defense, whether it’s non-lethal or lethal.

The Conversation

  • Dana says: October 6, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    Luara, pepper spray has some usefulness, but 99.6% of defensive gun uses that stop an attacker don’t involving firing the gun and only 10% of shootings are fatal meaning about 4 in 10,000 defensive gun uses involve the defender causing death.

    Pepper spray is also much less effective than a gun since an attacker recognizing it can trun their head, or hold hodl their forearm in front of their eyes .

    Spray also involves allowing he attacker to get close which is very dangerous if you dont have a firearms. They also don’t work in moderate wind

  • laura says: July 15, 2013 at 5:10 pm

    I love this discussion on non-lethal alternatives. As a woman, I carry a stun gun, and pepper spray at all times. I can stop a would be assailant, without causing death. I bought my first pepper spray and stun gun this past January.