When it comes to self-defense, most people’s minds immediately go to martial arts, knives and guns when thinking about options. That’s a good reason, and that will definitely cover the force continuum.
But, to seasoned students and practitioners, the shortcoming is obvious; there is no ranged less-lethal option.
But this is where tasers and pepper spray come in. Both afford users ranged less-lethal capability that is convenient, easy to carry and nominally easy to use.
But this is a debate that has raged for a while now: should you get a taser or should you get pepper spray?
Most people should get pepper spray instead of a taser. Pepper spray is generally more versatile while still being highly effective in situations that might not be effectively solved by a taser.
I know lots of folks love the idea of a taser, particularly people who are already fluent with the use of handguns, but the fact of the matter is that you absolutely, positively should be carrying pepper spray at all times, whether you are or are not carrying a gun or a knife.
I’ll talk about the pros and cons of each tool below, and make a case for why pepper spray is my less-lethal defensive tool of choice.
Tasers and Pepper Spray Both Fill an Important Niche
Before we go any further, I want to further drive home the point that tasers and pepper spray occupy an important niche in your self-defense plan. Specifically, that niche is ranged less-lethal force.
Said another way, they cover situations where getting close to go hands-on is ill-advised when words just aren’t getting the job done and lethal force in the form of a gun or knife might not be legally or ethically justifiable.
Tasers and pepper spray both, when used properly and when they work, allow you to use force against someone from a safe distance that will hopefully stop a fight before it starts or escalates, and give you an opportunity to escape.
This is capability that most citizens are sadly lacking in their day-to-day life, and you shouldn’t for a second think this is “geardo” behavior: you will encounter many more defensive problems in life that warrant this kind of less-lethal force than you will ones requiring the application of lethal force.
Similarly, just because lethal force is not justified or called for does not mean that you’ll have a good outcome if you do go hands-on; you can be wounded, maimed, crippled, or killed in a physical altercation.
Remember that your mission, such as it is, as a prepared citizen is to get away and go home to your family alive and intact, and to do so in such a way that you do not incur any devastating legal consequences.
Both of these tools can help you accomplish that mission, but only one of them reigns supreme. Now, let’s get to the comparison.
Tasers and Pepper Spray are Usually Easy to Acquire and Carry
One advantage that tasers and pepper spray both share is that they are easy to acquire compared to firearms.
In the vast majority of states, you can buy pepper spray over the counter anywhere, including department stores as long as you are 18 years old.
If you are younger than that, you can usually buy it with your parents’ written permission.
Tasers may or may not require a background check depending on the state, but they are similarly easy to get your hands on even if you have something in your background that might restrict you from getting a firearm.
Similarly, tasers and pepper spray are both legal in places where many kinds of firearms are not, and can likewise be carried in some otherwise weapons-restricted locations.
This availability and general permissiveness is a significant asset when other weapons, particularly guns and knives, might be expressly forbidden or simply unable to be carried legally by citizens.
Tasers Can Be More Decisive (When They Work)
Getting down to the brass tacks of effectiveness, tasers can be a lot more painful and effective at stopping a threat compared to pepper spray. When a taser works, that is.
Tasers work by firing a pair of electrodes into a target, with wires trailing back to the unit supplying power.
If both darts hit, and specifically hit the target in the torso, it will complete a circuit and shock the target in such a way as to overwhelm the person’s muscular system, causing them to lose control of their movement and fall.
In the case of civilian taser models, the unit will typically apply this current for 30 whole seconds, giving you plenty of time to set the unit down and then run away to get help or escape.
Unfortunately, tasers are fairly failure-prone: If an electrode misses, or gets knocked free, the target will be unaffected.
And then there are plenty of recorded instances where everything seems to be going as intended, but the taser just plain fails to incapacitate the target.
Then, of course, there’s the major inherent limitation that most tasers are good for only one shot before you have to change the cartridge to reload.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but compared to similar high-grade pepper spray, tasers seem to fail more often…
Pepper Spray is Highly Effective When Used Before a Fight Gets Bad
Pepper spray has one great thing going for it in that it can typically shut down a fight, or rather change the mind of the would-be fighter, before things get bad.
I’ve seen and studied many encounters where someone used pepper spray on a person who was already adrenalized and fully committed to the fight, and it didn’t seem to do much.
Conversely, I’ve also seen a bunch of instances where a person that was jocking up, getting ready to fight, got tagged with the hot stuff and then basically deflated like a balloon.
Once that stuff starts sizzling, it’s hard to think of or do anything else!
In short, if someone’s getting aggressive, hitting them preemptively with pepper spray is a great way to shut them down or to give them that big moment of doubt before the fight gets fully going.
That time in between is a precious opportunity for you to get away!
Pepper Spray is More Affected by Wind
A major shortcoming of pepper spray is that no matter what formula or variety you use, be it aerosol, foam, or gel, it’s going to be significantly more affected by wind than a taser is.
In fact, every police officer and any citizen who has gone through pepper spray training (taught by reputable organization or trainer) will know that being aware of the “wind call,” such as it is, is an important factor for determining effective range and also preparing yourself for possible blowback.
Pepper spray, just like bullets, is completely indiscriminate regarding where it lands! It can affect you and others as easily as it affects the bad guys.
It’s something that can be trained around to a degree, but unfavorable conditions can greatly reduce or potentially eliminate pepper spray as a viable option.
Pepper Spray is a “Friendlier” Force Option
Whenever you’re talking about self-defense it is serious business, and using any level of force against another person is always viewed with a very critical eye by the law and by your fellow citizens.
However, when it comes to defensive technology and weapon systems, pepper spray is about as friendly as it gets on both counts.
That’s because pepper spray, as bad as it hurts to be on the receiving end, as a rule of thumb inflicts no substantial lasting harm.
Yes, it hurts like hell and you can’t rule out some truly unlikely possibility of an allergic reaction or somebody stumbling, tripping and cracking their head on the ground or staggering into traffic.
But generally, all it does is hurt, not inflict actual injury.
Given time and a little bit of decontamination treatment, later on, the person will be just fine and no worse for the wear.
This is huge when you consider the legal and ethical implications of using force and self-defense and should not be underestimated.
Pepper Spray is Far More Convenient to Carry
There are several varieties of taser device sold on the market, and some of them are admirably compact, slipping into the front pocket of jeans or slacks or being easy to carry in a holster or case on the belt.
This is definitely a good thing, but these devices are highly conspicuous unless you conceal them with the care of a gun.
But, as compact as they are, no taser holds a candle to pepper spray when it comes to portability.
A small canister of pepper spray can afford the user several bursts or shots suitable for using against multiple targets or following up on a single target that didn’t get the message the first time.
After that, it’ll still slip easily and almost invisibly into a pocket, clipping on to a belt or even dangling from a keychain.
You’ll have to make space and commit to carrying a taser, whereas pepper spray can always be carried even if it is just an afterthought.
Pepper Spray is Way Cheaper
Another major consideration for most of us is the fact that pepper spray, even top-of-the-line high-quality spray produced by major manufacturers with excellent quality control, is extremely affordable.
The vast majority of smaller units suitable for everyday carry will sell for under $20, and almost all of them sell for less than $30.
Even some really cheap formulations that are still reasonably effective can go for $12 or less.
The same cannot be said for tasers, with even the most rudimentary and basic model going for several hundred dollars.
I don’t need to tell you that this is the cost of a good training class!
Yes, the value of capability is what you make of it but considering the niche that these two tools occupy the taser is hardly a value proposition for your average concerned citizen.
Verdict: Get Pepper Spray
Bottom line? Get pepper spray. Pepper spray gives you the capability you need as a defensively-minded citizen in a small package for a lot less money than a taser.
Tom Marlowe practically grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, Tom has the experience to help civilian shooters figure out what will work best for them.