Concealed Carry

Less Lethal Options for Self-Defense

Asian woman being follow by snatch thieft

I would likely consider a firearm the best tool for self-defense — besides a brain! However, a firearm isn’t always an option for everyone all the time. Whether you don’t feel comfortable around firearms or are not legally able to own one for one reason or another (age, residence, status), you should still have the means to defend yourself. 

Fortunately, there are solid options for personal protection that are less lethal. Notice I did not say non-lethal, as these devices are still dangerous and must be used with care, only when the situation demands. 

Fox Labs Pepper Spray
Fox Labs makes high-quality pepper spray you can count on.

Pepper Spray

One of the most common options for less-lethal self-defense is some form of pepper spray. The name derives from the main ingredient, capsaicin, which is the active component in peppers that makes them spicy. 

This inflammatory agent is what makes pepper spray burn your eyes and cause watery, blurred vision. Pepper spray is also referred to as OC spray. Bear spray is the same thing in a higher concentration with a farther spray for improved results. Mace is similar to pepper spray, however, it contains an irritant (like in tear gas). 

Pepper spray comes in a number of different spray patterns: thin stream, cone-shaped mist, fogger, gel, and foam. Each has its pros and cons, so I suggest you find what works best for you. However, the stream spray pattern is the most common among law enforcement and civilians because of its resistance to blowback. The stream shoots out like a water gun, allowing for precise aim, but it can be limited in its effectiveness against multiple attackers. 

Pepper spray is also available in different canister sizes, from small keychain devices to large cans with a farther reach. For everyday carry, a smaller device is much less intrusive and can disappear on your person or in a bag. Just make sure that it is readily accessible for an emergency. 

It’s important to note that if you carry pepper spray for self-defense you should change it out regularly, because it does expire and lose effectiveness. 

Sabre Stun Gun and Flashlight
Sabre offers a stun gun and flashlight combo pack that works well.

Taser or Stun Gun

A taser or stun gun are other prevalent options for less-lethal defense. These devices deliver an electrical charge that results in a painful and incapacitating shock around 50,000 volts. The actual electric charge strength delivered will depend on how the device contacts the body, i.e. through clothes, distance between connection points, moisture, etc. 

A stun gun functions up close when contacted directly to the skin. A taser shoots wired barbed projectiles that attach to the target. TASER was the original brand name, but much like Kleenex, and has now become a common substitution for the type of device. It will require you to reload a fresh cartridge for another shot. Tasers are typically more expensive than a standard stun gun. 

For home defense, you could go with one of the flashlight-stun-bat combos. These stun batons offer additional reach and function as an impact device as well. 

Be sure to charge or change the batteries on your device on a regular basis. You don’t want to need it for an emergency, only to find out it’s dead. 

Personal Security Products Baton
If your local laws allow, a collapsible baton is fairly intuitive for self-defense.

Impact Device

You could also go with an impact device for self-defense, such as a baton, sap, knuckles, bat, cane, tactical pen, or kubotan-type keychain. These may or may not be legal in your area, so check your local laws. 

Impact devices work by amplifying physical force exerted, either by increasing the mass or concentrating the force. They can still be very lethal with enough force applied to the right areas, such as the head. 

Using an impact device requires more physical fitness on the part of the user. You will also need to train to deploy these effectively. Take a blunt weapons class at a local martial arts studio to get a real feel for what this is like. Improper use can result in the attacker gaining control of your weapon. Certain striking and retention techniques can help prevent this. 

Byrna SD Kit
The Byrna launcher provides a less lethal firearm equivalent with different self-defense and training options.

Byrna Launcher

The Byrna SD and LE pistols are about as close as you can get to a firearm in terms of operation, without actually using a gun. These air guns have an innovative pull-pierce system, which simultaneously punctures the C02 cartridge and fires the round when you pull the trigger. With an effective range up to 60 feet and a 5-round magazine, you can still keep the threat at distance. Shooters have the choice between training and self-defense rounds, with self-defense options from pepper balls and tear gas, to hard rubber kinetic rounds. 

S&B Rubber Ball Shell
Rubber shot is a great less lethal option for those with a shotgun on hand.

Shotgun + Less-Lethal Ammo

A shotgun combined with some less-lethal ammunition such as rubber buckshot is a proven defensive option. Often used in riots and prisons, rubber buck will bruise and can break bone, but does not penetrate when used properly. For less-lethal home defense or as a vehicle option, you’d be hard-pressed to find something better. 

Given the specialty round, I’d go with a pump-action shotgun for the excellent reliability. A shorter 18.5- to 20-inch barrel is ideal. A semi-auto may work as well, just be sure it is reliable with your ammunition of choice. 

Because this is an actual firearm, it’s even more important to know what it’s loaded with, especially if you have other firearms and ammunition. Don’t mix and match loads. Some may consider using a Kel-Tec KSG, S&W M&P12, or Standard Manufacturing DP-12 type of shotgun with dual magazine tubes, and be tempted to load one up with less lethal and the other with standard ammo. In my opinion this is a recipe for disaster. It is far too easy to get mixed up in the heat of the moment and pull the trigger on the wrong tube. 

Kershaw Emerson CQC-6K
The Kershaw/Emerson collaborations offer excellent defensive features in a cost-effective knife.


Many people carry a knife for self-defense. I wouldn’t necessarily call it “less lethal” than a firearm — just different. It is certainly the most lethal option on the list. Be sure to check your local laws regarding blade lengths and locking mechanisms for knives carried on your person and act accordingly. 

If the environment and attire permit, I prefer a fixed blade around 8-9 inches overall length. This provides an optimal balance of accessibility, concealability, and reach in my opinion. A quality folding knife works as well, but may require more practice to nail down retrieval. 

Using a knife for defense requires more training than you might think. It’s a dangerous game and you will likely get cut. I encourage you to look into reputable training to at least get a feel for what you’re doing. Look into Libre knife fighting for a modern approach to knife combatives. 

Remember to keep it sharp. Knives are incredibly useful for general utility purposes as well, but don’t ruin your defensive edge. A quick stropping at the end of the day or a touch-up on the sharpener every week will keep you well prepared. 

Guard Dog Personal Alarm
A keychain alarm offers an additional layer of security.

Final Thoughts

Additionally, you may consider adding a personal alarm to your loadout. These devices emit a loud siren on the press of a button or pull of a pin, which will draw attention and hopefully cause your attacker to flee. I wouldn’t consider it a good defensive plan on its own, but it makes a great additional measure. 

In the end, these tools will never be quite as capable as a firearm for self-defense. However, those looking for a less lethal alternative can rest easy. You don’t have to be defenseless. Any of the options on this list will help give you a fighting chance. Just be sure that you don’t neglect training. 

Do you have any less lethal options for self-defense? Do you know anyone who may feel uncomfortable with a firearm for defense and is looking for another option? Share your thoughts and experiences in the Comment section.

About the Author:

Alex Cole

Alex is a younger firearms enthusiast who’s been shooting since he was a kid. He loves consuming all information related to guns and is constantly trying to enhance his knowledge, understanding, and use of firearms. Not a day goes by where he doesn’t do something firearms-related and he tries to visit the range at least a couple of times a month to maintain and improve his shooting skills.

His primary focus is on handguns, but he loves all types of firearms. He enjoys disassembling and reassembling firearms to see how they work and installs most of the upgrades to his firearms himself, taking it as a chance to learn. He’s not only interested in modern handguns and rifles, he appreciates the classics for both historical value and real-world use.
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (10)

  1. where can we find what the law allows in our state? I came across it before years ago. I can’t find it now. I know Michigan doesn’t allow the stronger pepper sprays.

  2. A stun gun is marginally less effective than foul language as a defensive option and it is certainly not in the same ball park as a Taser. I wish they’d stop showing up in these defensive articles other than to discourage anyone from carrying them.

  3. Thanks Alex for an informative and thought provoking article.
    I care not to advertise what I typically carry for defense but our vehicles both have a Cold Steel “Urban Dart” within easy reach to dissuade the errant nerdowell that has ill intention. We feel confident with them as such.

  4. @ COLONEL K: Cardboard Cuts? Really? Sounds like extensive remedial training is needed or maybe just being limited to the non-pointy plastic scissors from kindergarten; there is a reason they were called safety scissors. At the risk of being called a Fudd again, I do not believe that anyone should be limited in owning scissors. But I do believe that there are some that should have more training in their use to prevent injury. Cardboard cuts are a good indicator as to when that training should be required.

  5. You guys have successfully scared the “bejesus” out of me with all this knife talk, and other non-gun options. I have to agree with Colonel K 100%.

    At my age and physical condition, I would not survive an attacker if I employed one of those other options and it failed to end the encounter.

    I, therefore, will stick with my self-defense pistol as my first line of defense. I practice probably more than most on a weekly basis, and also invest more in ammunition than most. My favorite activity is shooting and have done so actively all my life.

    I do not trust my life or the life of my family to so-called non-lethal self-defense methods. I hate to be a “Naysayer,” but few women can win that battle with a man.

    That’s why I always carry when inside or outside or have it on my nightstand when I go to bed. Zzzzzz..

  6. I’d certainly never consider a knife as a “less-than-lethal” defense option?

    A person who is an utterly convinced pacifist who balks at taking human life under any considerations whatsoever, has limited options. The person in question may have to “think outside the box.” In Japan, there are various modern-day variations on the “three tools of arresting” such as the sodegarami, sasumata, tsukubo,–a pole-arm with spikes to inhibit someone from grasping it, and with various ends to snag clothing or pin limbs of attackers. The jitte was a baton/ truncheon with the means of deflecting a drunken ronin’s katana blade. There are of course, simple staves. The main downside of these things, of course, is that someone has to train rigorously in their use to become proficient, and they require actually coming to grips with the person. So you might as well use irritant gas sprays like pepper gas or even a knife.

    To reach out a bit, there are now actual multi-shot Taser weapons. They ain’t cheap. But you can get at least two tries to hit an assailant or attacker with the barbed darts and stun the malefactor electronically. If the shots miss, like a good many modern Tasers, it can be used at contact distance as an electronic stun gun. But then the same caveats as the Edo-period police weapons apply, and you may as well use a baton, club, or truncheon.

    One “outside the box” possibility is to keep a paint ball gun handy. The paint balls would sting like hell, just ask anyone who does that sport. Pant ball aficionados use goggles and protective equipment. A miscreant assaulting your home will probably not be doing so. The paint ball gun is very quiet, and it has the added advantage of marking the person for later arrest by the police: “Put out an APB for a residential burglar/ home invader in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans splattered with purple pain…”

    A dedicated less-lethal shotgun. You can get a shotgun and simply only ever load it with less-than-lethal shotshells. A LE agency would equip it with blaze orange stock furniture to ensure there’d never be a mix-up of lethal munitions with the less-than-lethal kind. Byrna makes $4 dollar-a-shot less lethal rounds that have virtually no recoil and very little noise. A shotgun primer launches a polymer tube down the shotgun barrel. When the shotgun round exits the barrel, two sabots fall away from a 70gr. polymer pellet with tail fins going over 300 feet per second. That pellet (and probably the two sabots too at close range) strikes a .55″ surface on the upper body or torso and inflicts a very painful blow. If the 70gr. pellet hits a limb, the person will probably just be really angry. A single hit may dissuade the person and make them break contact. You can always have a few additional shots too. The German Brenneke firm manufactures a less-lethal shell that uses a gob of some kind of substance referred to by the kompany as “KOline TM.” There are also rubber buckshot, but at defensive distances, these likely will penetrate the skin of an assailant targeted with them. In some cases, these may have been designed to ricochet off pavement, such that the pellets would bounce up and strike the person in the ankles, legs and lower extremities. There are also various “bean bag” rounds, These are close to $10 dollars a round, and some locales might outlaw them for non-LEOs. CTS manufactures one called the “Super-sock bean bag impact round.” That is a 40gm “flexible sock” filled with shot going about 280fps at 10 yards. Supposedly 4″ or better accuracy at 20 yards out of a cylinder bore Rem. 870. Some bounty hunters used to carry bean bag guns like “prowler foulers” and other kinetic energy stun guns. These pack a wallop, and they can cause permanent damage to anyone struck by one. Certainly they are an option, albeit they are designed to bowl someone over so they can be handcuffed. See above for Edo-era police weapons.

    One advantage of the dedicated less-lethal shotgun is that if it is actually seen by an intruder, he’ll have to reassess what he wants to do… We can’t assume that a person will be intimidated by the sight or sound of a weapon being readied, of course. Any weapon employed has to be ready for immediate, unhesitating use. But it is the case that many police report that drawing or arming a weapon–including the hoary old “police cruiser” pump-action shotgun–has produced compliance. Some less-than-lethal options simply don’t look all that convincingly dangerous.

    As for me, I’m not likely to adopt a less-than-lethal option in my circumstances. No. 4 lead buckshot and 9mm HST cartridges are my defensive choices.

  7. When you absolutely, positively want to piss off your attacker, uses less lethal devices. As an aside, I carry a knife all the time. I have yet to encounter a cardboard box it can’t defeat, though I have received the occasional cardboard cut in return. Be prepared to bleed.

  8. The author mentions that many people carry a knife for self-defense, and I am one who has carried a knife almost every day for more than 50 years. It started back in the Army. But, we were trained in a variety of Close Quarter Combat skills because we were in the Army, and they wanted us to at least know how to kill certain other people before they killed us. We had several classes on edged weapons; there was an instructor who told us some things that have stuck with me, lo, these 50 plus years later. We were told, more than once, that a knife is a last ditch, there is nothing else to use, self-defense weapon, and a poor one, at that.

    As the author mentioned, a knife requires considerable training, and I would add much more training than a gun if it is used for self-defense. That Army instructor told us that if the SHTF, and we were using a knife for self-defense, the first thing we needed to do is come to grips with the fact that, if it were really a life-and-death knife fight, we were going to get cut and it would be bad. He went on to say that most people who use a knife and have not resigned himself to being cut badly will lose the fight if they are cut first. There was something about if they get cut first but have not prepared themselves for that reality, well, it is traumatic and generally does not end well at all. Losing a knife fight frequently results in death.

    We also learned that most of the knife fights in the movies and on TV are as fake as the cowboy saloon fights. You can’t break a hard liquor bottle over someone’s head, no matter how you hit them, the bottle is sturdier than the head, the head will break before the bottle. Beer bottles are another matter, but that will result in a lot of blood, on the person who is hit, and just as frequently, on the hand that was holding it, and frequently resulting in multiple surgeries on said hand. Did I mention there usually is a lot of blood? Same with a knife fight, expect a lot of blood… and pain. Knife wounds hurt… I know, I have been cut more than once by knives, and a bayonet or two, to the point of needing stitches when it was over, and not just one or two. If the knife is really sharp, you may not feel it at first, but when you do… Not any fun at all, trust me. And some people really start freaking out when they see blood. After the Army and 30 plus years in the ER, I am seldom bothered by seeing blood, particularly when it is not mine.

    Now, while working in the ER, I have seen too many people who thought the knife they carried was all they needed to defend themselves and they would figure it out. They did not. As I said, training with a knife is probably more important than training with a gun when it comes to being a weapon as opposed to just a tool.

    Since that time in the Army, I have carried a variety of knives. In my pockets right now, I have a couple of small folders that I use for most tasks and a couple of Swiss army knives on keychains. I also carry a tactical knife that doesn’t get pulled out except when I move it from one pair of pants to the other. And I carry it, well, just because… Some habits die hard. In my mind, tactical means tactical; my tactical knife is dedicated to being tactical, so I will not use it for anything else. I want it to be out of the box sharp at all times. I have had my favorite tactical knife, an Emerson CQC-7 made by Benchmade, since back in the early 90’s. Emerson Knives went out on their own in the mid 90’s, ’96, I believe it was. They are superb tactical knives, but they are not cheap. The CQC-7 knives in current production are multiple generations away from the one that I have, but I am hardly young, and I really doubt (read hope not) that I will have to resort to using it so I see no need to shell out that much for a knife, and I am a knife guy… and I shall continue to carry the one I have.

    The biggest problem with EDC knives is if they are used at all, much less, frequently, they get dull quickly, so learning to keep them sharp is of vital importance or they become either almost useless or at least not as useful if called upon to use a weapon. Sometimes they become more dangerous than useful to the user because the blade has not been attended to properly.

  9. A popular saying goes “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” How this applies to firearms is this: If you are carrying a firearm, and a hostile event occurs, you only have the firearm to address it. Less lethal means may have worked (thinking pepper spray here) but you didn’t have that tool available, so the trigger is pulled when maybe it shouldn’t have been. That’s why I carry both a firearm and a small can of spray.

  10. –and on the shotgun loads, consider them lethal but with a lower secondary danger to the guy next door or across the street because the plastic shot, rubber balls, or hollow plastic slug will rip someone apart at close range.

    It reduced the danger to someone a block away.

    It can still kill at close range.


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