When I’m Carrying a Knife/Gun/Pen/Pepper Spray, which do I Pull Out First?

Frank wrote in on Monday asking me “If I’m carrying a gun, knife, tactical pen, or perhaps even pepper spray, how do I know which one to pull out first?”

It’s a great question, and one that I’ve seen play out quite comically in force on force training…and not so comically in real-world situations.

In general, you want to avoid a situation where you have more gear than training–the more options that you have, the longer it will take to make a decision on which to use and take decisive action AND the more likely it is that you will freeze.

Reality is a little more complicated…

First off, we need to assume for the sake of this article that you’re dealing with a surprise ambush or assault…not a situation where you provoked someone and the situation escalated from words to violence or a situation that you could have avoided.  We’re talking about a situation that you have no choice but to deal with and deal with immediately.

The more you train, the quicker you can take action, even if you have multiple options.

That’s why you can see law enforcement studies that say that the more gear on an officer’s belt, the slower their reaction time AND you will see individual officers with an assortment of crap on their belt worthy of envy from Batman who can solve problems with the right tool immediately.

If you prioritize one tool over your others…so that you have a “go-to” tool to deploy when you don’t have time to think through all of your options…the quicker you’ll be and less likely that you’ll freeze.

But, if you just carry a bunch of defensive tools and don’t practice with any of them, the chances of freezing go up exponentially.

Chances are good that you’re somewhere in-between, so here are a few guidelines that may be helpful.

The first one is that your primary weapon is whatever is in your hands.  That may be a phone, cup, keys, something else, or empty hands.  If you have a little warning, it may be the flashlight or pen you’re using.  Whatever is in your hands (or your hands) will oftentimes buy you the time and space that you need to deploy another tool.

Second…you need to know how long it takes you to deploy whatever you’re carrying and it’s effective range.  In general, the tool that you want to go for first is the one that you can get into the fight the quickest.

You can find this out with a par timer on a free shot timer app.

You’re going to want to know relative times based on how you’re dressed, gloves, standing/sitting, seat belt, etc.  In a LOT of situations, the coffee cup in my hand or my Stealth Tactical Pen in the collar of my shirt is the tool I can deploy the quickest.  And that’s simply because it’s acceptable to walk around with those tools in my hand and it’s not acceptable to walk around with my pistol or open knife in my hand.

Along those lines, I know that pepper spray is lightning fast when I’m running with it in my hand and REALLY slow in my pocket (unless it’s in my hand in my pocket.)

Same with my tactical flashlight…if it’s already in my hands in a dark parking lot or in my hand in my pocket, it’s fast but it’s pretty slow if it’s in my pocket and my hands are out.

What you’ll find when you do this test is that most pocket knives are V E R Y slow to get into a fight unless they’re already in your hand or your hand is pre-positioned on them.

I carry Emerson knives with Wave openers (see the picture above) that open quicker than the fastest switchblade and I’m STILL quicker drawing my pistol from concealment unless I’ve got my thumb in my pocket pre-positioned on the blade.

If you’ve seen guys demonstrate drawing and stabbing with a concealed fixed blade knife, keep in mind that you can’t just buy the knife and expect to inherit the skill to go along with it.  A LOT of practice goes into being able to do that quickly and reliably.

The third guideline is that, if you have the luxury of time and space to fully analyze the situation, pick the tool that can stop the threat with the least amount of force.  The “right” tool will be determined for you after the fact by people sitting in comfy chairs Monday morning quarterbacking what they think happened.  Some of these people watched too much Lone Ranger as a kid and think you should be able to shoot the weapon out of the bad guy’s hand without drawing blood.  The “right” tool can be WILDLY different depending on what part of the country you’re in when you’re attacked.

The right tool will be the Goldilocks tool (not too hot, not too cold) that was just effective enough to handle the problem without being “too” effective.  This is based on your size/ability/condition and your attacker’s size/ability/condition, as well as the weapons they brandished, what they said, how many bad guys there were, the location of the attack, and more.  You need to be able to articulate why you used one tool vs. another…and one reason is time.

The fourth guideline is that you can consider carrying less unless you have time to practice with everything that you carry.

Another version of this to keep carrying what you’re carrying now but purposely limit your options when you’re mentally gaming situations to one or two of the items.

That way, if you don’t have time for a lot of thought, you’ll have fewer options to get in the way of taking constructive action.

This is easy to do when you carry items that have “everyday” uses instead of just being useful in a worst-case scenario.  Pens, knives, flashlights, and beverage containers fit this nicely.

But all of this comes back to speed…which tool can you deploy quickest?

And, the majority of the time in counter-assault & counter-ambush situations, it’s going to be the tool in your hands or empty hands.

And >this< is the best training that I’ve ever been through for using your hands or whatever is in your hands to buy the time and space that you need to get a purpose built defensive tool into a fight.

It’s quick to learn, easy for people of all ages and abilities to practice, and it scales seamlessly regardless of whether you’re armed with a pistol at a local gas station or a shampoo bottle and a back-scratcher in the shower.

Check it out today by clicking >HERE<

If you’ve got questions on the EDC pic…here’s some of the common questions/answers:

  1.  I carry a 12 round PMag in my Glock 26.  For IDPA shooters, it fits in the IDPA BUG box and it gives me an extra 2 rounds with better concealability over the Glock or Pierce +2 base plates.
  2.  I didn’t used to carry pepper spray, but I carry it almost 100% of the time as of this summer.
  3. The Emerson has a chisel grind on it…like a wood chisel…the other side is straight up and down.  This is based on the personal advice of Earnest Emerson himself.
  4. I carry a spare silicone wedding ring on my flashlight…because I choose not to wear a ring for a lot of the things that I do, but I always want to have one on in social situations.
  5. The karambit is not EDC, but I carry it when I’m logging, climbing, and during the winter to cut climbing ropes, logging ropes, and nylon/kevlar/dyneema/spectra winch cables when logging/plowing/righting vehicles in the winter.  I don’t view it as “tactical” but it is INCREDIBLY effective for cutting stuff in ridiculously cold weather when I don’t want to remove insulated gloves.
  6. This year, I added a RATs tourniquet to my EDC.  Yes, I know that’s probably the most hated tourniquet on the market.  I know the guys who designed it downrange, know how to use it, and I’m very comfortable with it.  I can use it on kids, dogs, and my kids have been able to use a RAT on me for years…MUCH easier than a windlass.  I know it works based on distal blood pressure testing and the RAT in my pocket is always going to work better than the CAT that I left at home because it didn’t fit in my pocket.  If you happen to be someone who hates them, don’t carry one.

Questions?  Comments?  Fire away below:




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  • Emily

    Reply Reply September 10, 2020

    What Pepperspray do you recommend?

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 21, 2020

      Either Saber Red or Mace Pepperguard where the trigger guard flips up.

      I carried the version where the trigger rotated to the side for years…until Larry Yatch pointed out to me that that mechanism is very difficult to manipulate under stress unless I practiced with it WAY more than I was. I tested it under simulated conditions and performed poorly, so I switched to the flip-up guard.

  • Jackie

    Reply Reply September 10, 2020

    For decades I’ve trained armed and unarmed self-defense and almost always taught the-rule of-thumb “respond in kind.” If they have a knife, use yours; etc. When I hit 50 I noticed I started slowing down and at 60 I had a serious change of mind. I won’t recover from, or even survive, an unarmed hand-to-hand like I once could. Albeit; eye, nose, pressure point and gonad strikes still work but strength and speed dwindle.
    Now the seniors I teach hear my prospective; “go big or go to the morgue.” I’d rather defend killing an unarmed BG a third my age in court than have my wife of 45 years bury me.
    The younger classes I still teach, more rarely, still hear “hook up if you think you can dominate” but now also hear my perspective of age.
    More importantly, they all hear what my Sensei from 1964 told us day one. “Walk it out, talk it out, or duke it out,” in that order. Perhaps the perspective of age could be added to your otherwise excellent training narrative.

  • Lee

    Reply Reply October 11, 2019

    I always get valuable information in every email you send. This is no exception. However, I have to say today my respect for you went up 1000% because you mentioned carrying your wedding ring for social occasions. I also have a silicone ring I wear to the range or other places I won’t wear a metal ring. I respect a man who wants people to know he is married. It definitely speaks to your character. Thanks for all your insight.


  • Chuck

    Reply Reply October 11, 2019

    There is no clear cut, short answer to cover all situations. You may be justified in drawing a firearm if the supposed bad guy is considerably larger than you are. If you are more mature, you may be justified in drawing a firearm is the s.b.g. is considerable younger and more athletic appearing than you. If the physical situation is reversed, you perhaps would be much better advised to not draw any weapon of any kind if the s.b.g. appears unarmed. There are so many variables in every type of situation that it is impossible to come up with guidelines that pertain in all situations. The best one can do is point out possible pitfalls along the way. Is pepper spray the best response to a threat? The best answer is, “It depends.” Is drawing a striking instrument the best response? “It depends.”

    Sometimes the threat of an armed response works. I was approached late at night as I left my business by two young men who looked as if they were not coming my way to discuss the pennant race. In my best regimental sergeant major parade ground voice I bellowed, “Halt! Do Not Approach.” Simultaneously I dropped my briefcase and reached around under my jacket to the small of my back. They skidded to a stop and one said, “Aww, we were just going to ask for a light.” I replied that I didn’t smoke and didn’t have a light. I picked up my briefcase and continued to my car keeping my eye on them and my hand at the small of my back. Did I have a gun there? No, I did not. Did they know what was there? Just maybe they suspected that I had a firearm. Did they see a firearm? Of course not. If they had continued what would I have done? Well, I would have flung my briefcase at them because it only had tax papers in it and would have beat a hasty retreat to my car hoping that I could get inside and get it started before they reached it. I would have run them down if it had degenerated to that point. This was before cell phones.

    I would never announce that I had a firearm if I did not. However I would make motions that would lead one to perhaps think that I had. I think that I would never announce possession of a firearm. The first inkling that someone would have that there was a firearm present would be when the firearm was presented and used.

    I know too many cops who have had too many bad guys insist that they were going to insert the officer’s firearm in a body orifice and proceed to attempt to do just that. I only know of one instance where a b.g. told a non-l.e.o. that he was going to insert the .44 mag in a body cavity. It ended quite badly for the b.g. because the non-l.e.o. was not bluffing. Unfortunately for the non-l.e.o. he had to sit through a felony trial before the jury returned a not guilty verdict.

    You never can tell what bad judgment some DA will bring to a case. It doesn’t matter that he wastes tax payer money trying a loser case. When running for re-election all he will talk about is the cases he won.

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