A question was recently raised on the web by a concerned licensed gun owner:

“I’ve been carrying a concealed firearm for a couple of years now with my permit, but I think maybe I should carry something for those times when it’s a ‘harassment’ confrontation, and not a lethal situation. I’ve thought about blackjacks, expanding batons, spray, and Kubotons. I don’t want something that’s going to be so heavy that it’s cumbersome to drag around all the time, but I want something that will be effective. Also, if I have to use it, and I wind up in court, I don’t want whatever item it is to make me look like a bad guy for using it (like brass knuckles or something). Any ideas???”

That’s a very good issue to consider. Responsible folks who carry guns know that they aren’t an all-purpose tool. Guns are for a very few, specific, life-threatening situations. What can you do when you encounter a persistent but non-assaultive drunk? A punk who wants to rob you, but not hurt you? Someone who is clearly mentally incapacitated, possibly dangerous, but not murderous?

I know what I’d want. We’ve all seen them on Star Trek – a phaser. One weapon, settable to “kill” to “stun,” depending on the situation. I’ve always wanted one, haven’t you?

Until a phaser comes along, those of us who want to have something in addition to a gun available for defense will have to make do with other tools.

Less Than Lethal, NonLethal, What’s in a Name?

Generally, people with a military background (or who have learned from someone influenced by the military) use the term “nonlethal.” People with a law enforcement background or influence use the terms “less than lethal” or “less lethal” to mean roughly the same thing.

A Department of Defense directive defines nonlethal weapons as, “Weapons that are explicitly designed and primarily employed so as to incapacitate personnel or material, while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment.”

In other words, a nonlethal weapon or technology is one that doesn’t necessarily kill, but disables an opponent by temporarily neutralizing his weapons, his equipment, or people. The whole idea is that death or severe permanent disability are only slight possibilities, not the intended results of deploying the weapons.

For this article, I’ll use “less lethal” as a coverall term.

Regardless of what they are called, many of these devices are capable of inflicting permanent injury, even death, particularly if they are used improperly. There have been deaths from police beanbag rounds fired too close (10-15 feet or less) to the assailant, or at his upper chest or head. Like all other defense tools, from Persuader keychains to firearms, you should get appropriate training before carrying them.

What’s Available?

There have always been good, solid less lethal standbys available to law enforcement and civilians. Pepper spray, and impact weapons top the popularity charts and have proven their worth in decades of use.

But in the past few years, the range of less lethal options available to the military and police has exploded with new products. One military document I examined listed well over 200 different types, including acoustic (a device that can aim two ultrasonic frequencies at specific individuals in a riot situation, producing an intolerable giddiness, nausea or fainting), sticky foam (think of super glue in a big spray can to stop people or vehicles), slippery foam (to make it impossible for people to remain on their feet), and 10 different kinds of batons.

Where did all these come from? Both the military and law enforcement communities realized some years ago that their role in the world was changing somewhat. More and more military operations involve peacekeeping rather than shooting. The public is increasingly intolerant of cops who use what is perceived (rightly or wrongly) as excessive force, especially when a mentally ill person is shot. But the options, below lethal ones, were very, very limited. So, government agencies ranging from the National Institute of Justice to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency started funding research into less lethal technologies. Although some of this work remains classified now the results of some of those efforts are starting to be introduced to see how well they really work.

Some of them really work well. The portable roadblocks that police use to stop a car is simple, elegant, and very functional. It is a series of triangular bars linked together that can be carried in a cruiser’s trunk, and thrown across any street quickly. When deployed, it has projecting spikes, like the ones the rental car companies use to keep people from driving the wrong way. The cops stand safely off to the side, while the bad guys run over the spikes and suddenly learn that they can’t drive very far with 4 flat tires.

But you and I don’t need a portable roadblock that destroys tires. We can’t legally buy a dry-ice bomb that incapacitates people by overwhelming them with carbon dioxide, or a neuro-electromagnetic device that uses radio signals to affect the brain, a water cannon for crowd control, or a vortex weapon that generates a massive shock wave capable of knocking people off their feet.

What about beanbag loads for shotguns, plastic bullets, or high-strength nets that can be fired at a subject, rapidly and reliably entangling him? As far as I’ve been able to determine, these aren’t available to civilians, either. Don’t feel that you are being denied access to something you really need, however. None of these less lethals are simple replacements for their lethal counterparts; they are likely to be less accurate at any given distance.

So, what’s out there that we can use?

Stun Guns

Stun guns are handheld, battery powered devices that have two or four prongs. When held against a person and activated, an alternating current is sent through the gun, causing pain, disorientation, and, hopefully, cessation of hostilities.

The kind of effect you get depends on how firmly the probes are in contact with the assailant, how long you apply the current, the battery strength, and the assailant’s clothing. Products claims range from 50,000 to over 600,000 volts.

Manufacturers say that a one-half second contact will repel and startle the attacker, giving some pain and muscle contraction. One to two seconds will cause muscle spasms and a dazed mental state. Over three seconds will cause loss of balance and muscle control, mental confusion, passivity and disorientation for several minutes.

In most situations, you are not going to be able to maintain contact with an attacker for very long, so be prepared to move to Plan B quickly if he isn’t impressed with the first shock.

These devices are generally small enough to put in a pocket or purse, and, generally under $50, are quite affordable. Flashlights and batons in combination with stun guns are also available.


Tasers are gun-like objects that fire two sharp darts at the end of thin wires, up to 21 feet in length. When the darts hit a person, an electrical circuit is completed and electricity is applied. The darts do not have to penetrate the skin; they are effective through most normal clothing. Tasers are popular police tools – more than a thousand police departments have purchased them, and reports show that they work 90-95% percent of the time.

They work by sending a current through subject’s body between the darts. This interferes with the body’s neuromuscular system and voluntary muscle control is lost between the darts, generally in 3-5 seconds. The subject feels dazed and is unable to move normally, but the effect stops as soon as the taser is turned off.

There are some disadvantages to be aware of. Tasers can fail if only one probe hits the target, or if one of the wires is broken (by a struggling subject, for example), or if the subject is wearing very heavy clothes. Most tasers are one-shot only, so you are pretty much out of luck if you miss your target, or if you need to face down a gang, though they can be deployed as contact stun guns if needed. They are bulky, not intended for concealed carry. Low batteries (especially in cold weather) are another danger. Oh, yes, they cost $300-$600.

What about legality? Check it out carefully. As far as I know, at least seven states (HI, MA, MI, NJ, NY, RI, WI) have made stun guns and tasers illegal, which is why I was not able to legally obtain any such products for review. Some cities in other states also have restrictions, including Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington DC.

For decades, pepper spray (the popular name of oleoresin capsicum spray) has been found on the belts of police officers and in the pockets and purses of savvy women who want handy, safe, easy-to-deploy, extremely effective protection.

Pepper spray can fail if you are too close to, or too far from your assailant, or if there is a strong wind when you use it. Optimal distance depends on the spray unit, the type of delivery pattern (spray, stream, foam, or fogger) and the wind.

This is still one of the most reliable less lethal self-defense options. Make sure you buy from a major producer (you don’t want to depend for your safety on the product of someone’s basement chemistry lab). Get one in the 5-10% range (higher just costs more and takes somewhat longer to recover from), with a 2 million or more SHU rating. Test it (carefully!) initially, then shake it occasionally to keep the ingredients properly mixed, and replace it when the expiration date is reached, or after you use it.

No a replacement for a gun

I might use any of these less lethals against an unarmed person who was seriously harassing me. What about someone armed with a club or a knife, who is harassing but not yet attacking? A taser or pepper spray might do the trick, but a stun gun, which requires you to be up close and personal with your attacker, would not be my choice for that situation. Depending on the circumstances, it is possible that only a gun would reliably end an armed threat, whether that involved a gun, knife, or other weapon.

Police training, and in some cases the product manufacturers, insist that when less lethal tools are employed, lethal force should be immediately available to use if it fails. For the cops, can mean a second officer standing by with a loaded gun ready to fire. For example, in Seattle recently, police had to shoot a knife-wielding man after a Taser failure.

For you, it means learning, in advance, to transition from your less lethal tool to your lethal one if necessary.

Those Star Trek explorers didn’t have to learn two different weapons systems, they didn’t have to carry around two different tools in two different holsters, and they didn’t have to worry about changing from one tool to the other as the danger they faced rapidly escalated or deescalated.

Practicing with your less lethal in your off-hand has an enormous advantage. It lets you transition to drawing your firearm in the normal way with your strong hand if the need arises. Don’t expect to be able to drop the nonlethal from your strong hand – the adrenaline rush that fuels you during an attack can cause your muscles to contract, making it virtually impossible to rapidly access a second weapon with the same hand. Under the stress of an attack, your higher decision processes may short circuit, also, and you won’t be able to “think” to drop your stun gun to draw your gun.

Bottom Line

The phaser you can set on stun isn’t likely to be available any time soon, but there are a lot of new less lethal technologies and products beginning to emerge into wide use.

Don’t get rid of your gun. Less lethal options and firearms complement one another excellently, but neither replaces the other. A layered defense is the best defense.

Most manufacturer’s claims are to be taken very cautiously, since many of these devices have not undergone independent testing, nor have they all been tried in military or law enforcement operations.

Be glad, for now, that the military and law enforcement folks are working out the bugs, finding the problems, and testing the reliability and efficacy of the first generation of these new methods. By the time these products make it into the civilian self-protection market, the second or third generation products will be much improved. Nonetheless, they will still require training, or the unintended consequences can be serious injury or death.

This article was reprinted from Women&Guns Jul-Aug, 2002, Copyright © 2002, Lyn Bates