Less-Lethal Carry: What’s The Best Pepper Spray?

Less-Lethal Carry: What’s The Best Pepper Spray?

Picking the best pepper spray isn't easy with so many options, but here we take a closer look at oleoresin capsicum.

Pepper spray, also called OC spray for the active ingredient of oleoresin capsicum, is the most effective less-lethal weapon available. Whether carried alongside a firearm or instead of one, pepper spray can make for an excellent addition to anyone’s arsenal.

So, what pepper spray should you buy? What brand? What type? Let’s take a closer look at exactly what features make for the best pepper spray models and which ones are just glorified hot sauce.

U.S. Marines training with OC spray. Photo: Wikipedia.

A Quick Rundown On Pepper Spray

Pepper spray was developed in the late 1980s/early 1990s as a riot control agent by Kamran Loghman, a scientist working for the FBI. The idea was to create something akin to tear gas that was effective at gaining control of suspects but was also more portable, and therefore usable by individual officers.

“Tear gas” (of various types) has been in use since the early 20th century in warfare and riot control. Tear gases are known as lachrymators, substances that cause the eyes to water. This makes pepper sprays lachrymators as well since they cause irritation of the eyes among other things. What separates pepper sprays from conventional tear gases like CS gas is mostly what they’re made from.

The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, a vanilloid compound found in chili peppers, which are in the plant genus capsicum and part of the nightshade family. Capsaicin is an irritant, causing a burning sensation on the skin and any other tissue it contacts.

To make pepper spray, chili peppers are soaked in a solvent that extracts capsaicin from the flesh of the pepper. The solvent is evaporated or distilled off, leaving oleoresin (a waxy compound) of capsaicin, aka oleoresin capsaicin or OC.

The concentration of capsaicin depends on the peppers used, as some chilis have a lot (habaneros, Scotch bonnets, ghost peppers, etc.) and some have comparatively little, such as guajillo, jalapeno or Hatch chilies. This means that OC content alone isn’t always the best way to determine the efficacy of a pepper spray. Chemistry is complicated, and there are plenty of other factors that will impact just how good a given spray is at incapacitating someone. Rather than buying the highest content OC spray you can find or trying to unravel the intricacies of these complex compounds, your best bet will be to stick with a proven brand and model with a long record of effective use.

To aerosolize it, the oleoresin must be emulsified with some sort of agent (typically propylene glycol) and water, which is pressurized to make it sprayable. This is where many brands will differ the most because the exact formulation will impact how the consistency affects the accuracy, range and pattern of a spray. Much of this will come down to personal preference, however, as there are pros and cons to the different styles.

A U.S. soldier receiving OC spray to the face as part of his training. Photo: Wikipedia.

After its introduction, OC spray was also noted for its effectiveness against animals which is why it's used as bear spray as well. Bears have many more times the olfactory receptors of humans, making them even more susceptible to its effects when correctly deployed.

So…what's the difference between bear spray and self-defense spray?

For the most part…marketing. The concentration of most bear sprays is 2 percent, which is about the same or only slightly stronger than most self-defense sprays. Where bear spray usually has an advantage over self-defense OC spray isn’t the potency of the compound, but the larger and therefore easier to use delivery system. This is why many riot police use OC spray canisters that more closely resemble bear sprays than traditional pocket-sized defensive models.

A larger style OC spray canister carried by some police. Photo: Wikipedia.

Why Should You Carry Pepper Spray?

As John Correia of Active Self Protection likes to say, OC spray gives you an option between “a harsh word and a gun.”

OC spray is more effective than any other less-lethal tool. Electrical weapons (e.g., Axon-brand TASERs) have a failure rate close to (or more than) 50 percent, making pepper spray the far more reliable option.

Pepper spray can be an indispensable tool for both uniformed officers and private citizens. For the former, it helps to gain control of a violent suspect without resorting to beating or shooting them. For the latter, it provides a self-defense solution for situations where lethal force may not be justified.

Pepper spray can also give you a tiered force response if carried in conjunction with a firearm. For example, maybe a wild dog is approaching you with aggressive body language. Preemptively putting a hole in it before it actually attacks you may result in legal trouble or upsetting your neighbors, but deploying OC spray can silently dissuade the situation before it has a chance to escalate.

If a person wanted to carry a weapon of some sort but not necessarily a firearm or anything else potentially lethal, pepper spray is far and away the best option regardless of gender. Man or woman, cop or civilian, pepper spray works if used correctly.

Is OC Spray Legal?

International regulation is mixed. Some countries prohibit possession, some require a background check or a permit, and some countries let anyone of age buy it.

In the United States, federal law only regulates possession of OC spray on airlines. You can carry up to a 4-ounce container in your checked baggage.

Just as with firearm laws, state regulations vary wildly.

California only prohibits carrying OC spray with more than 2.5 ounces of spray, as well as possession by minors and felons. Florida likewise doesn't mandate who can possess it but forbids carrying a canister with more than 2 ounces of spray.

New Jersey doesn't prohibit possession, but limits capacity to 0.75 ounces. New York mandates it to be purchased in person from a pharmacy or sporting goods or gun store, but the OC content can't be more than 0.7 percent.

Michigan restricts purchase and possession by anyone under 18, and purchase of any OC spray with an OC content of more than 18 percent. Nearby Wisconsin, which has a football team that's actually good, restricts the sale of any OC sprays with more than 10 percent OC content. Wisconsin also mandates the container have a safety device and be sold in a tamper-proof container.

This isn't a comprehensive list of all the states' different regulations, so make sure you look into your own local laws regarding OC spray before deciding to carry one. Since they can set their own policy in many states, some colleges forbid possession on campus and others do not. Bear that in mind if purchasing some for a student, or if you carry pepper spray and will be visiting (or attending) a college.

What To Look For In Pepper Spray?

High OC content is a good thing, but it’s also not the only factor to consider. Some sprays that advertise a high OC content may be achieving that number through methods that actually negatively impact its effectiveness in other ways.

It’s simpler to just look for a reputable brand that has plenty of recommendations from respected trainers and/or law enforcement agencies. If the brand has a presence in the LE market, it tends to be good.

Avoid any OC spray or other OC device that looks like a gun. Police and militaries use regular old pepper spray in canisters, not gimmick devices. That there is a clue! Further, police happening upon a scene where a person holding a gun-shaped object is not likely to end well. 

A gun-shaped pepper spray device. Photo: Wikipedia.

The more important aspects of choosing an OC spray are its size, safety mechanism and delivery style. The best bear sprays will feature a large canister, be quick to deploy and have a long-range stream that’s resilient to wind. For EDC, however, the best pepper spray models come in smaller canisters and feature fast and intuitive safety systems that are unobtrusive but effective.

It’s also good to look for a pepper spray that has an inert version so you can practice and train with it. Just like you’d pattern your shotgun, pattern your pepper spray.

A woman practicing with her OC foam. Photo: Wikipedia.

Gel or spray is down to preference. Gel is less susceptible to wind, has a longer effective range and is safer to use indoors, but requires more accurate placement.

You may also notice that some sprays are advertised as having UV (ultraviolet) dye mixed in. This dye is only visible under blacklight and is added to aid in the identification of a suspect who has been sprayed. Whether that’s something you want yours to have is up to you, but it will have no bearing on the immediate efficacy of deterring an attacker.

Something else to keep in mind is that most sprays have about a 4-year shelf life, so remember to replace them periodically if they don't get used!

The 5 Best Pepper Spray Models:

POM Pepper Spray


POM pepper spray is affordable, portable and one of the most trusted names in OC sprays. The standard canister is pocket-sized, roughly double the size of a AA battery. You can get it with a pocket clip or lanyard ring with an included keychain.

It has a flip-top safety device covering the spray button, with 2 ounces of 1.4-percent spray with UV dye. Each canister has about a 10- to 12-foot range and holds about 12 seconds worth of spray. Inert canisters are available too for practice, and you can buy them in single, double, triple or even six-packs. The singles go for around $13 on Amazon.

SABRE Campus Safety Pepper Gel


SABRE is one of the most trusted brands of pepper sprays, and the Campus Safety Pepper Gel is a good choice if you prefer a gel to a stream or spray. It holds just under 1 ounce of 1.3-percent gel, good for 25 bursts up to 12 feet of range.

The Campus Safety model includes a hard polymer housing, with a twist lock safety, and a lanyard loop for the included quick-release keyring. Inert models are available as well, and they can be bought in black or pink. They're easily found for around $12 online or in stores. 

Counter Assault Bear Deterrent


Counter Assault is one of the most common bear sprays on the market and has been used successfully to deter bears and other predators, including human threats. It comes in a standard 10.2-ounce canister with an included holster. The spray paddle has a simple wedge safety that's easy to disengage.

The spray is 2 percent capsaicin, with a 40-foot spray distance and up to 8 seconds of spray in the can. It can be found online and in many sporting goods stores but has a typical price of around $50 or more. Combined with the extra bulk, this probably isn’t the best pepper spray for everyday carry, but if concealability and price aren’t of concern then this is certainly one of the most effective options available.

Mace Police Strength Pepper Spray


The Mace brand is synonymous with self-defense sprays, to the point that some people still refer to any pepper spray colloquially as “Mace.” Their Police Strength Pepper Spray model is a good choice of compact spray for daily carry.

The polymer housing has a flip-top safety cap, with Personal-, Pocket- and Police-sizes ranging from less than 1 ounce to about 3 ounces. All models are about 1 inch in diameter and 3 to 5 inches in length. Content is over 1 percent, so more than potent enough. Lanyard loops and pocket clips are included as well.

SABRE Red Compact


SABRE Red is common in police use and is one of the most highly recommended sprays on the market, with an OC content of 1.3 percent with included UV dye. The Compact model is better for EDC, being roughly 4 inches long and 1-inch in diameter.

The Compact emits a stream rather than a spray, with an 0.67-ounce capacity, max distance of 10 feet and up to 35 bursts. It has a swiveling safety mechanism (push to align and spray) and an included pocket clip.

SABRE Red Compact sprays can be bought online or in stores for around $10 per, though two-packs can be had for about $15, making it affordable as well. Inert cans are also available for practice and training.

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  1. I hope this isn’t a stupid question, but regarding this statement: “SABRE is one of the most trusted brands of pepper sprays, and the Campus Safety Pepper Gel is a good choice if you prefer a gel to a stream or spray.”, why would anyone prefer a gel to a stream or spray? How would a gel help someone defending himself?

  2. “As John Correia of Active Self Protection likes to say, OC spray gives you an option between “a harsh word and a gun.”” I know John says that a lot, but I’m pretty sure he got it from “Legendary Lawman” Chuck Haggard of Agile Training and Consulting, a well known trainer whose OC Instructor Class is top notch. He’s also well known for his snub revolver training and ballistics testing.


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