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Personal chemical munitions: Are they gone with the electronic wind?

By PoliceOne Columnist Major Steve Ijames

Electronic incapacitation is the buzz phrase in "less lethal" force today, and for good reason. The devices work very well and provide law enforcement with an extremely effective tool when facing those who require immediate incapacitation.

With that in mind, some have suggested that OC spray might soon go the way of the dinosaur.

In order to address such issues for the future, one must first examine the past.

Historical Overview:

During the early 1900's, coal field labor violence resulted in the deaths of countless men, woman and even children in out-of-the-way places such as Ludlow, CO, and Matewan, WV. Though well off the beaten path, the machine gun- and dynamite-initiated violence caught the nationwide eye of politicians and citizens alike.

The general consensus was that surely there had to be a better way.

This outcry led to the U.S. military releasing its grip on certain chemical munitions and the 1923 creation of the first company able to provide tear gas for civilian use.

The initial focus was on tear gas grenades, which law enforcement used liberally on crowds such as those encountered during the labor unrest noted above. The technique proved safe and effective, especially when compared to the death and destruction that had previously been so common.

The success in crowd-control situations led police officers to look for ways to use the tear gas technology in more common circumstances. This resulted in the development of pen-gun type tear gas launchers that field officers used to stop violent persons from further-than-contact range.

The devices used .38 caliber blanks and fired CN dust into the suspect's face. This high speed chemical blast stopped many a determined adversary and caused permanent and disfiguring eye injuries as well.

The cure was ultimately found worse than the disease, and by the late 1950's professional police agencies had discontinued their use.

1930-50 "pen gun" CS launchers, an early 1965 "CN chemical mace" (far left) and more recent OC sprays.

During the early 1960s, violent crime in America was on the rise and, not surprisingly, "law and order" became a key issue in the 1964 presidential campaign. In his first address to Congress in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson called for the establishment of a blue ribbon panel to probe, "fully and deeply into the problems of crime in our nation." In its report, the committee made numerous recommendations-including the development of "non-lethal" police weapons.

This call was the catalyst for a number of innovative technological advancements, including a hand held CN-based chemical spray. The product was designed to be readily available to the officer in the field (belt mounted), and offer a viable alternative to hands-on "baton focused" tactics. Safe and generally effective, the product was used by thousands of police officers from 1965 to 1984.

It was discontinued by most agencies at that time for the following reasons:

1. The perception that the product didn't stop a significant number of suspects who were sprayed, especially those who were intoxicated, under the influence of mind-altering substances, or suffering from certain types of mental illness.

2. The product earned a reputation for secondary contamination and it was almost impossible to work in an area or with suspects once it had been deployed.

The product Chemical Mace™ greatly assisted American law enforcement as it transitioned from a hands-on "contact" mentality of overcoming resistance to a stand off "less intrusive" method that set the tone for future tools and techniques. Though the product disappeared by 1984, it left its mark on officers as they grew accustomed to a personal chemical incapacitation tool and grasped the significance of extending the reactionary gap. This set the tone for "pepper" based sprays, which are now universally accepted by American law enforcement agencies.

Oleoresin capsicum (OC) Spray:

In the early 1930's, the Army Chemical Research Unit at Aberdeen Proving Ground extracted the essential oil from the cayenne pepper plant and produced a chemical that would later become known as "Oleoresin capsicum". Human effects testing found the product incapacitating on individuals, but not prone to the secondary contamination necessary for battlefield deployment. This negative for the military would ultimately prove advantageous for law enforcement.

Oleoresin capsicum spray was developed in 1960 at the University of Georgia by Professor James H. Jenkins and Dr. Frank Hayes, D.V.M. Their efforts were geared towards stopping attacking dogs, and their product, Halt Animal Repellent™, was first sold commercially in 1963. It continues to be used by the US Postal Service and is an effective spray repellent that protects mail carriers today .

In 1970, complaints concerning the effectiveness of CN-based Chemical Mace™ led an entrepreneur to develop a combination OC spray/flashlight called the Nebulizer. The idea of using OC as an alternative to CN was born out of the successful stops mail carriers had reported using Halt™ against vicious dogs.

Though innovative, the product was a commercial failure.

In 1974, a group of 15 investors joined with the inventor of the Nebulizer and attempted to market the OC spray alone, but this initiative also failed.

One of the original investors continued alone with his OC-based spray now called Cap-stun, and his company, Lucky Police Products. Lucky Police reported OC spray sales of approximately $30,000 in 1985.

In 1987, the FBI Firearms Training Unit completed a study of OC-based "pepper" spray involving 899 volunteers exposed in a controlled environment, as well as suspects in operational contact with 39 police agencies and 3 correctional institutions. The study revealed almost universal success, with no reported injuries.

The FBI strongly endorsed OC spray and in 1988 issued Cap-Stun to all of its field agents. Lucky Police Products reported sales that year in excess of $1,000,000.00. Shortly thereafter, one of the agents involved in the test was criminally charged after it was revealed that he received $57,000.00 from an OC manufacturer during the "independent" test.

In 1990, major chemical agent manufacturers began producing and marketing OC-based sprays and within three years most police departments in the country were using it. In the years that followed, a number of in-custody deaths occurred proximate to the use of OC spray.

Civil and human rights groups protested the use of the product and alleged that it was killing those who were exposed to it. Subsequent investigations revealed that OC spray was generally safe and effective and the benefits of its use greatly outweighed the potential concerns.

It is important to note that history is repeating itself as TASER technology is now being subjected to the same attacks as was the OC spray.

OC vs. Electronic Incapacitation:

Though most agencies now issuing electronic incapacitation devices have noted a decline in OC use, this should not be interpreted to mean OC spray is on the way out. The electronic devices are a "hot topic" with most agencies, have proven tremendously effective, and generally require the same justification for use as OC spray. As such, it is not surprising that the electronic device has become the "first strike" option for many officers facing circumstances that justify the use of either.

Likewise, there are numerous cases in which OC spray would be the preferred munition, such as when facing multiple subjects or when an officer needs to incapacitate a suspect for an extended period of time.


Oleoresin capsicum sprays have been in regular duty use for well over 15 years. The product has been evaluated in a number of studies and found to be effective in approximately 85% of the cases deployed. OC spray fills a clear void in police use of force decision making, adding a viable option and alternative -- along with electronic incapacitation -- between verbal dialogue and the baton in cases where officers have grounds to arrest or detain, and the suspect indicates by action, word, or deed that physical violence will be used to resist such an arrest or detention.

In addition, OC spray is very cost effective to procure, easy to train and deploy, and statistically unlikely to cause serious injury or death. As a result, OC spray can now be found on nearly every police duty belt in America, and is clearly one of the most significant "less lethal" incapacitation and injury reduction tools in the contemporary law enforcement arsenal .

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