Less-Lethal Defensive Tools – Exploring Non-Lethal Weapons

less-lethal defensive tool: taser

Photo: author

From time to time, I get a student who openly admits they would have a problem shooting someone. This is, after all, a very difficult task from a psychological standpoint. If you carry a firearm, you should address this in your training. Some students ask about “shooting to wound” rather than firing at the high center chest. This is not really a viable option because shooting a knee or other small part of an extremity is a very difficult task under stress. Add motion to this and an intentional shot to wound and stop an attacker is nearly impossible. The other consideration is that a shot to the leg (particularly the thigh) can very easily become a lethal wound.

For many of these students, the reality is a surprise, and they are even more surprised when I tell them not to carry a gun. If you acknowledge that you would have a difficult time pulling the trigger, you have answered the question of whether or not you should carry a firearm for personal defense.

Fortunately for these individuals, less-lethal options are available. These tools are called “less lethal” instead of “non-lethal” because there is still a possibility of causing death with the tool. A person with respiratory problems could die from a chemical agent, or a person falling from a Taser could hit their head. These options are also viable for carry even if you do carry a firearm as one of your self-defense tools. Some situations may warrant the use of a less-lethal tool rather than a firearm. I suggest considering some of the options as alternatives should the situation arise where deadly force is neither warranted nor justified.

There are many types of less-lethal devices and I can’t cover them all in a short article. Instead I will hit on the more popular ones and some really bad ones that I have seen for sale in big-box stores.

less-lethal defensive tool: pit bull keychain

This keychain is marketed as a defensive tool but is more a novelty than a realistic defensive option. Photo: author


Impact weapons such as “monkey fists” or punching devices like the pit-bull keychain can be effective in defending yourself. They offer you the ability to increase your power (such as swinging the monkey fist) and effectiveness (the ears of the pit bull can penetrate a small amount). The better option in my opinion is the monkey fist. I have read some recommendations saying to actually hold the ball of the monkey fist and strike your attacker with your keys rather than the ball. This seems to be a viable option, but even then I am not a huge fan of these weapons.

Miniature batons offer the same advantage as striking by focusing the energy to a single point. They and other devices come in various models, including keychain models, and can undoubtedly increase the effectiveness of a strike.

This leads to the question: if we are that close, are we going to have the device staged in a manner that we could deploy it efficiently enough to justify not simply using fists or palm strikes? Would it not make sense to just strike your attacker and attempt to stop the threat?

If you are going to carry a device like this, I see its most probable use being in a parking lot situation where you may already have the tool in your hand. The monkey fist would make the most sense if you want to carry one of these devices as one of your self-defense tools. It can be used as a simple handle to carry your keys and be ready at a moment’s notice.

Another option is a cane or walking stick. The idea seems sound, but in reality the people I’ve heard talk about this I have never seen walk with a cane.

The real downfall of these tools is that you must be in or nearly in contact to use them. In a defensive encounter, distance is our friend. We want to stay away from the person attempting to cause us harm if at all possible. Plus, if you are in complete contact, you may not be able to get a full swing and generate enough power. This is where unarmed training is much more useful than these tools. The tools themselves are limited to your skill with them, and that is somewhat dependent upon your striking abilities. If you are not confident in your striking abilities, seek training or consider a different option for personal defense. Many of these, such as the pit bull, are more gimmicks or novelties than realistic defensive tools.


I saw a product in one of the big-box stores claiming to be a “non-lethal” defense option that was designed to look like a pump shotgun. A handgun-style model was also offered, and both fired pepper balls, rubber balls, and training balls. As good intentioned as I’m sure the creator of these products was, they have so many flaws that they should not be used as self-defense tools. The only good things about these products are distance and the ability to affect your target without being in contact.

The bad on these is really bad. First is the idea of a pepper ball as a home-defense product. Law enforcement uses these types of devices to subdue from a distance people who may be a threat to themselves or in riot-control situations. They are not widely used but were popular for a while. The balls themselves are filled with a tear gas-like substance that is actually a powder, not a gas. When this strikes a hard or semi-hard object, a cloud of this chemical agent is released into the air. It would be great if this cloud stayed only right near the bad guy, but in reality it will most likely affect any person in the room including the shooter (you, in this scenario). There’s nothing like taking yourself out of the fight with the bad guy.

The rubber balls rely simply on pain and the psychological stop. These balls are similar in theory to a bean-bag round or rubber bullets that law enforcement may use to subdue a subject or in riot-control situations but are much less powerful. An attacker who is determined or high on drugs can fight through this. In firearms classes, I teach that we never rely on the psychological stop, even though it is the most likely. You should not even consider it your only stop.

I mention these devices because I have received inquiries from former students and through social media about my thoughts on these devices. I strongly recommend not falling for this gimmick. I believe the company itself has gone out of business, as I could not find any evidence online that they still exist. The only thing I did find was Amazon stating the product was no longer available. Of course some well-intentioned person may start a similar company and this type of product may appear on the market again.


Many types of less-lethal ammunition are on the market that are fired out of regular firearms. These range from bean-bag rounds for shotguns to rubber bullets for handguns. These types of ammunition should not be used for defensive carry or home protection.

As with other styles of less lethal that are fired from a gun, they deal with pain compliance only and rely on a psychological stop. They do not offer any likelihood of incapacitation. Again, these devices were designed for use by law enforcement in situations where a suspect needs to be subdued but deadly force is not warranted, such as a suicidal person who is a threat only to themselves. They are always backed up by fellow officers with lethal-force options should the situation escalate to that level.

Some have stated they like the idea of loading one or two of these cartridges as the first to be fired in their gun, followed by lethal rounds. While this sounds like a great plan, on average it takes between two and five rounds of lethal projectiles to stop a threat. We also must look at the hit rates of known shootings, and most police shootings run a very low percentage in the 20s or even lower. We also see high volumes of fire in very short periods of time, when people fire until they believe the threat has ended.

If the situation reaches the extreme of needing to shoot your defensive firearm, wasting valuable space in your magazine, especially in a small defensive pistol or a shotgun that holds little ammunition, is foolish.

less-lethal defensive tool: taser

If you drop the Taser C2 or Bolt models and run away after incapacitating your threat, Taser offers a free replacement. Photo: author


There’s a big difference between stun guns and Tasers. Many people use the term Taser to describe a stun gun, but I will distinguish between the two for clarity. A stun gun is a contact defensive tool that passes electricity between two fixed probes. If you contact an attacker with this electrical arc, it will cause a good deal of pain. A Taser is the type of electrical device carried by law enforcement officers that fires two probes using compressed air. The probes have barbed (like a fish hook but straight) needles that penetrate the skin of the attacker and are attached to wires connected to the device. The result is an electrical pulse that causes the muscles to involuntarily tense, incapacitating the individual. The farther the probes are spread on the body, the more intense the effect is.

I am not a fan of stun guns because they are contact weapons, meaning you must be close enough to touch your attacker. The other major downside is that they are pain devices only. This again means they will not incapacitate an attacker, and an attacker who is determined or high on drugs will be able to fight past it. This is even more of a problem than with rubber bullets, since you are in contact when using the device. If it is ineffective, you are now in a full-on physical fight for your life.

Tasers are different, and I do consider them viable self-defense tools. They incapacitate the attacker rather than simply hurting him to deter him. These units are from the same manufacturer (Taser International) as their law enforcement brothers but are slightly different. The most significant difference is the civilian model fires 15 feet, while law enforcement models fire 28 feet. Here are the downsides and things to know prior to carrying a Taser:

The first is that most models only give you one shot. Some more expensive units ($1199) allow two shots, and a law enforcement model allows three. Recently I told a student I was going to begin selling Tasers and she said, “That’s what I need.”

This student was having a difficult time getting consistent hits to the high center chest. I cautioned her that I did not think a Taser was necessarily the correct device for her. The Taser is even more difficult to get your hit with because you must get two projectiles to hit the target, with one of them being fired at an angle. Not being able to fire a second shot could be disastrous.

The other major item to note is that the probes must get a certain amount of spread for incapacitation to occur. This can be seen in videos where the Taser fails to incapacitate someone. I have heard it stated that you should be a minimum of seven feet away from your attacker to get a proper spread. This is a major possible downside. We know that most defensive shootings happen between seven and 15 feet, but that doesn’t mean attacks don’t occur at closer distances. This could mean your defensive tool may not provide a full effect.

On the plus side, Taser has an offer that if you use your device to defend yourself and you drop the device and run after incapacitating the attacker, they will replace your device if it’s a C2 (now called the “Bolt”) or the new Pulse model. These specific models are made to turn on and off automatically for a total of 30 seconds to give you time to escape the attack.

The Taser also offers the backup of a “drive stun” should the probes fail. This is similar to the way a stun gun works and is done by removing the cartridge from the front of the device.

I have had the pleasure (I wish I could type that sarcastically) of being tased and hit with a stun gun. The stun gun hurt a lot (like being snapped by the world’s worst rubber band) but would not necessarily have stopped me. Being tased is not so much about the pain (it does not feel good) but more the incapacitation. It fires all your muscles and has an exhausting effect. I have never come close to doing the 30-second cycle of the C2 or Pulse and will pass if the opportunity presents itself.


Pepper sprays come in many forms and formulas. There are foam versions, versions that spray a cone like mist, and the most-used stream versions. The sprays are made of extracts from hot peppers. A hit of pepper spray in the face, neck, or even high chest can cause vision problems, severe burning sensations, and respiratory distress.

I do not personally have experience with pepper foam but have never seen a huge advantage to it. I have been sprayed and contaminated several times, and the thought that wearing glasses would have stopped the effectiveness never crossed my mind.

less lethal defensive tool: pepper spray

This Sabre pepper spray contains a potent mixture of OC and CS and can be very effective, but you risk being contaminated when you spray it.
Photo: author

But I have experience with the cone pattern and stream models. I recommend the stream over the more mist-like cone. The mist is more easily blown back by a slight breeze and lingers more. This can result in you being contaminated while trying to escape an attacker.

Training is very important with spray, as you must know how your particular can works. Many manufacturers make cans that you must push a tab to the side to allow the can to spray. On many of these, people push down on the tab, which does not result in a strong stream. You must push down on the center to get the full stream. In the middle of an encounter is not the time to learn this.

It is very important to note that not all pepper spray is the same. Some sprays that are sold in big-box stores are weak and more of a security blanket than a defensive tool. In a security job I worked many years ago, it was being debated if we would carry spray. Most guys said they did not want to be sprayed, but I volunteered. A coworker and I went to a big-box store with the idea of showing the others that it would not be too bad. To our surprise, when I was sprayed it initially had no effect. It was not until I washed it off that it began burning. Warm water opens your pores and increases the effect. Needless to say, I recommend researching which spray you are going to carry if you choose this option.

I personally carry Sabre Red 3-In-1 when I carry spray or recommend spray to my students. This is a very effective spray that is a mix between normal OC spray and military CS gas. I have seen it used in the past and was contaminated with it. What little contamination I got was enough for me to want it to never happen again.

Another consideration with spray is the likelihood you will be contaminated. If you have ever wrestled someone who has been sprayed or had someone spray a can in tight quarters, you know what I’m talking about. Law enforcement, military, and security personnel are sprayed during training in part because of this fact. The realization is that you may be contaminated and still need to fight. Trainees are sprayed or contaminated and must work their way through an event like an obstacle course, where they demonstrate the ability to fight after contamination.

You must also understand that pepper spray may not be effective against your attacker for one reason or another. They may be able to fight through the spray and still present a threat.


Some less-lethal tools can be great items to add to your everyday carry and viable options for those who do not wish to carry a firearm for defense. But like anything else, more bad options exist than good ones. Be careful what you select: your personal safety or that of your loved ones could be in jeopardy if you don’t do your research. Remember that they should be considered less lethal rather than non lethal.

Training is just as important with less-lethal tools as it is with firearms. Many times I teach students who have a can of pepper spray or a stun gun. Some do not bring the device to class and the ones who do rarely have it readily available. A can of pepper spray in your purse is very hard to access in a dynamic incident. If you choose a less-lethal option, consider your method of carry and how you will deploy it.

Most students who have spray have also never tested it. Test fire it to be sure it is spraying correctly. I also keep cans of inert training spray available for anyone who chooses this method. Spraying this inert spray at a target or in a scenario allows the student to learn how to deploy the spray properly. You should practice this as well.

Most Taser devices come with training probes that are not barbed, and a metallic training target to let you practice. But this is only one shot worth of practice, and you will find that the intuitive design allows firearms-type training to benefit you in deploying the Taser. The recoil will be far less with the Taser, and this gives an opportunity for air guns or airsoft to gain some value in training.

Legal issues may be slightly less restrictive than firearms, but in some states Tasers and pepper spray products are illegal or require registration. In some states, certain mixtures of spray (usually the more effective ones) are illegal. In many other states, you need a license to carry a concealed firearm but do not for a Taser or spray. Age restrictions can also vary, so to avoid trouble, check your local laws before carrying a less-lethal device.

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17 Responses to “Less-Lethal Defensive Tools – Exploring Non-Lethal Weapons”
  1. Garrett Bradt
    Garrett Bradt

    All of those suggestions are illegal here in NY basically…. unless your LEO (Law Enforcement)… so my best plan is to just sit and wait to become a target? HA! Andrew Cuomo should be impeached and Hillary Clinton should be on trial for high treason. Any other discussion is a JOKE!

  2. William Nunnery
    William Nunnery

    Another option is a can of wasp spray. It is cheap and effective but also has its limitations. When my wife and I go bicycling I carry a can in case we are attacked by a large dog as has been reported several times in my neighborhood. The cans are of course not very small but has a 14 foot range and will cause temporary blindness in an animal. I am looking for a smaller can.

    • Jonathan

      “It is a violation of federal law to use this product in a manner other than intended.”
      I’m sure you’ll find this warning on every can of wasp spray.

      I heard of a guy that kept some in his car for self defense, then used it defensively during a post-accident road-rage incident, and was subsequently sued when the attacker ended up with permanent eye injuries.

      The believe the real legal problem was that he admitted to staging the wasp spray for personal defense.

      I strongly suggest switching to a larger can of pepper spray, like the size they sell for defense against bears. They have an impressively forceful spray, and don’t carry the same legal problems as wasp spray.

  3. Jonathan Hayes
    Jonathan Hayes

    It’s not “non-lethal”, but my house has enough battle-ready medieval weaponry to equip a small army. I have read that if I hit a man on the top of the head with my pole-ax, it would split him to his crotch. My mace would turn his head into jelly or my broadsword neatly remove it. I do know how to use all these and regularly practice the stances and moves. The key is: Have you mentally prepared yourself to use a weapon – any weapon – and established parameters where you would use the weapon. Face it, if you don’t know how to use it or you aren’t willing to use it, a gun is just an expensive piece of iron. The advantage of my stuff is it is precision. I’ve read that police shootings are only 20% hits and these are highly trained shooters.

  4. Johnny D
    Johnny D

    Here’s what I do. Carry a strong flashlight with strobe capabilities and learn to use it. Carry a decent, quick opening knife and learn to use it. Carry a small can of pepper spray and learn to use it. And finally, carry a .38 snub nose in your pocket and LEARN TO USE IT!

    I will determine, based in the scenario, what weapon I need and will bring out the most effect one that is appropriate for the circumstance. Yes my pockets are full, yes I have to pull up my pants from time to time and yes I will give you EVERY opportunity not to die if you attack me. But if I have NO choice, I will be YOU not me.

    • Johnny D
      Johnny D

      I meant to say “it” will be you, not me but there is no edit feature on comments…lame.

  5. Jay

    A ‘Kubotan’ is a viable non-lethal and efficient device when used on pain control centers. All three daughter’s have their keys on one after multiple practice sessions bruising their father!!

  6. Mike K.
    Mike K.

    This is a great read, alot of relevant points made here. There is another site that focuses solely on this topic of less lethal options. I recently read an article on the new Taser Pulse and the Brutus bulldog striker. If anyone else is interested im posting the link here: http://lesslethalarms.com/2017/04/23/taser-pulse/