Pepper ball gun for self-defense?

The complicated process of obtaining a firearm license in South Africa forces many people to look at alternative self-protection weapons. A pepper ball gun for self-defense is a popular choice. 

Pepper ball guns for self-defense are mostly standard paintball guns, slightly modified paintball guns or in certain cases specially designed launchers. The launchers come in various forms such as pistols, rifles, automatic rifles and even devices which resembles flashlights.

Pepper ball guns are powered by CO2. The CO2 may be stored in standard paintball gas cylinders with a valve that can be opened and closed as needed or in small sealed CO2 cartridges which are punctured when the weapon is used.

The ammunition is a hard-shell ball filled with pepper powder which may be an organic substance called oleoresin capsicum (or OC), which is derived from peppers. There’s also a synthetic version, PAVA. Upon contact with a target surface, the ball is supposed to break and release the pepper powder into the air. The attacker then breathes in the powder which affects the mucus membranes causing a lot of coughing, tearing up of the eyes and a running nose. The theory is that this will stop an attacker from continuing with an attack, thus allowing the defender to escape to safety.

Pepper Gun For Self Defense

Photo by Pengyi zhang on Unsplash

Disadvantages of using a pepper ball gun for self-defense

Pepper ball guns are dependent on CO2. CO2 cylinders are known to leak and gradually lose pressure. CO2 cartridges do not suffer from leaking, until they are punctured. This means that when the cartridge is punctured it also gradually loses pressure. If the CO2 cylinder/cartridge does not have adequate pressure, launcher does not function properly and the velocity of the pepper ball may not be enough to break the hard-shell. Distance/reach is also severely compromised.

Sometimes the shell of the pepper ball does not break to release the pepper powder. This can happen if the ball does not hit the target or a surface.

Pepper balls release a cloud of pepper dust which makes it unsuitable for confined space indoor use as the dust can be spread by fans, air conditioners and even open windows. The dust also settles in carpets and furniture which may affect the defender as much as the attacker.

Depending on the type of launcher, it may be difficult to operate under duress. Some launchers have valves or striking knobs that must be opened/struck before CO2 is fed into the launcher.

Pepper powder does not affect everybody the same. This means that a determined attacker may be able to function through the effects of the pepper powder.

The launchers are generally large which makes carrying on the person or in a handbag quite difficult. There are newer launchers that are smaller (about the same size as a 9mm pistol) but they have reduced ammunition capacity.

Carrying ammunition involves clunky hoppers which are noisy and robs the defender of stealth, or it may require carrying several limited capacity magazines which requires skill, coordination and time to change. Doing simple tasks like changing magazines becomes vey difficult under duress when the fine motor skills of the human body is affected by adrenalin.

Advantages of using a pepper ball gun for self-defense

If the attacker is affected by the pepper powder, the effects generally last several minutes, which allows the defender to escape or get a different weapon if escape is not possible.

Pepper ball launchers have a relatively long range. This means it can be used to keep attackers at bay from a distance. That is the reason why it is so popular amongst law enforcement agencies to perform crowd management activities.

When the defender has adequate advance warning and time to prepare, the area can be saturated with pepper as many balls may be fired in succession, thus creating a pepper cloud.

Accuracy when firing is not critical. As long as a suitable surface in close proximity to the attacker is hit, the pepper balls may break and still affect the attacker.

Can be used against multiple attackers as multiple shots may be fired either directly at the different attackers or in the close proximity of the attackers to create a pepper cloud.

Can be used from inside a building firing to the outside.


Taking all the pros and cons of a pepper ball gun for self-defense into consideration, I am of the opinion that a pepper ball gun is useful as a self-defense weapon as long as one understands that it has limitations and that it is not the magical silver bullet. It is always best to acquire empty hand self-defense skills and also to have multiple self-defense weapons available. Most important is that all weapons require regular scenario training with an emphasis on using the weapon under stress.  

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