In recent years, pepper spray has gained in popularity and is now the self defense product of choice, especially among women. It’s not hard to see why; it’s non-lethal, inexpensive, easy to use, small and inconspicuous. It’s also legal in most states and is extremely effective in taking down even the toughest of men.
Although mass-produced canisters of pepper spray have been on the market for about 30 years, its origins date back much further. Evidence exists to confirm that the concept of using hot peppers or potent fumes to debilitate an enemy, has been around for centuries.
The Aztecs discovered chilies in the wild and began cultivating them almost 6,000 years ago. They used the peppers to add some flavor to their meals but also discovered other benefits as well. They used it as a medicine for a variety of ailments including; colds, asthma, pain relief and to soothe sore throats. They also discovered that if the hot peppers were burned, it could be used as a form of chemical warfare. The fire created a smoke that incapacitated their enemy by irritating the throat and penetrating the skin, much like the pepper sprays of today. In juice form it was also used as a weapon and as a punishment. The Aztecs even punished misbehaving children by holding their head over a chili pepper burning in a fire. The smoke and ensuing fumes were potent enough to cause a burning sensation in the skin, throat irritation, and tearing of the eyes.
The Aztecs also cut up chili peppers and tied them to their boats to ward off sharks while they fished. However, the effectiveness of this method was likely very minimal as the spiciness of the pepper is diluted in the ocean water.
The Mayan Indians cultivated hot chili peppers and also used them to add flavor to food. Like the Aztecs they soon realized that hot peppers had additional benefits. They figured out how to weaponize peppers and use it against their enemies.
When fighting wars, the Mayans burned a large quantity of hot chili peppers. The resulting smoke, released massive amounts of capsaicin (the active ingredient in hot peppers) into the air, creating a smoky, misty, haze that stung the eyes and penetrated the skin of their enemies. They were then able to retreat or take advantage or their enemies weaken state to finish them off.
The ancient Chinese also used hot peppers for more than just food. They weaponized peppers by putting ground cayenne chili peppers into a makeshift container made of rice paper. The rice paper was folded in way that allowed them to carry the ground pepper into battle without spilling it. The rice paper was used as a mechanism to propel the pepper into their enemies face. Once the enemy was incapacitated, they would either flee, or use that advantage to finish off the enemy.
In Japan in the 1700’s there is perhaps the first documented use of a pepper spray albeit a primitive one. Ninja’s used a method called a “metsubishi” (or gantsubushi), to disorient their opponents. A metsubishi is literally an “eye closer”, and was used to describe the various tools and techniques used by Samurai police, Ninjas and other individuals to temporarily or permanently blind or disorient an opponent in feudal Japan.
One type of metsubishi was used by Ninjas to blow ground, hot pepper into the eyes of their opponents. It was box-shaped, lacquered or brass with a hole on one end to blow into and a hole on the other for directing the powder into their enemies face. Unlike the pepper sprays of today, this version also included mud, ashes, flour, dirt and ground up glass for an extra kick! The use of the metsubushi to dispense pepper powder is thought to have brought about the legend of Ninjas disappearing in a puff of smoke.
Today, wildlife experts in India use ghost peppers to keep wild elephants away from crops and villages. Ghost peppers are among the hottest peppers in the world and the smell alone is enough to keep the elephants away.
Throughout history, chili pepper was used not only as a weapon but also for treating wounds. The historical use of peppers as a torture device against criminals, and slaves in 14th and 15th century in Europe has been documented.
Beginnings Of Modern Defensive Sprays
There are many different types of defense sprays, but the three most common still in use legally today are CN, CS and OC. CN and CS are created from man-made chemicals and are therefore considered carcinogens and OC is natural and derived from hot chili peppers.
CN (tear gas)
In 1864, Germans first discovered and used a chemical called Chloroacetophenone (commonly known as CN tear gas), a non-lethal tearing agent that could incapacitate humans for short periods of time with no lasting effects. CN irritates the mucous membranes and leads to a loss of balance and orientation.
CN isn’t as widely used as CS due to its higher toxicity levels, however it is still used by paramilitary and police around the world as a means of riot control. It comes in a small pressurized aerosol can and is commonly referred to as tear gas. CN is also mistakenly referred to as Mace, because Mace was a brand name used by the first American manufacturer of CN aerosol spray. As a result Mace has become synonymous with CN tear gas as Kleenex has to tissue paper.
CN often doesn’t have any effect on drunks, drug addicts, or people with high pain tolerance. Also, CN takes effect within 5 seconds of contact with exposed flesh.
CS (choking gas)
In 1928, a new type of tear gas (orthochlorobenzalmalononitrile) was developed by B.B. Corson and R.W. Stoughton. The name CS came from the first initials of their last names. CS gas was used by American troops to flush the Viet-Cong out of their tunnels during the Vietnam War.
CS has grown to become the most widely used tear gas due to its effectiveness and perceived lack of toxicity when compared to other man-made chemical agents. CS reacts with moisture or sweat on the skin and causes an intense burning sensation. Effects include; tearing of the eyes, coughing, secretion of mucus from the nose, disorientation, dizziness, labored breathing, and burning sensation in the nose and throat. In high concentrations it also causes intense coughing and vomiting. The effects of CS usually wear off in a matter of minutes. However, in recent years, as more research has been done, it has been determined that CS is a carcinogen much like CN and other man-made defense sprays.
CS is about ten times stronger than CN and tends to be more effective against on drunks, drug addicts, or people with high pain tolerance. However, it can take up to thirty seconds to take effect if not sprayed directly into the eyes.
CS and CN have waned in popularity as a self defense spray for the general public. OC is generally considered a superior alternative. OC pepper spray works and disperses quicker, has no long-term health effects, and is a natural compound made from peppers.
OC Pepper Spray
Cayennes, jalapenos, habaneros, bell, ghost other hot peppers are fruits from the Capsicum plant family. The distinctive characteristic about Capsicum fruits is the intense heat they produce. The reason why some peppers are hotter than others is the amount of the “active ingredient” contained in the pepper. The active ingredient in Capsicum peppers is a natural chemical called capsaicin. Bell peppers have almost no capsaicin while ghost peppers have a large amount. Capsaicin causes a burning and stinging sensation when eaten, inhaled, or when it penetrates the skin.
In the 1980’s manufactures began using hot peppers to make pepper spray into a legalized non-lethal weapon. Law enforcement agencies began to recognize pepper spray as a non-lethal weapon capable of incapacitating a suspect. The first documented civilian use came when the USPS started issuing mail carriers canisters of pepper spray to defend against dogs and other animals.
In 1987 it was formally endorsed by the FBI and within 4 years was in widespread use in law enforcement agencies across the nation. When it comes to civilian use, not all brands or types of pepper sprays are considered legal. Some states or cities restrict or even ban it outright for civilian use.
So pepper spray has evolved from the Aztec’s rudimentary tactic of burning peppers, to the more stealth method of the Ninja’s metsubishi, to the mass produced aerosol canisters of today. Even as technology has advanced, and man-made chemicals have been used for self defense, they have been unable to improve upon nature’s time-tested method of self defense; hot chili peppers.