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Urban Survival Primer
Survival Options In An Urban Setting

The concept of urban survival encompasses keeping yourself, your family and your possessions safe and secure. This primarily involves four locations; your home, your automobile, your work location or school, and being out and about the town. All four of these pose different problems and all present you with different advantages and disadvantages to take into account. Knowledge, skills and tools provide the means to tilt the odds in your favor.

Surviving in an urban setting very rarely includes battling the elements. If you were faced with a situation where the elements put you at risk, we'd consider that within the realm of wilderness survival. If you are worried about freezing to death, it really doesn't matter if the large stone object next to you is a mountain or a skyscraper. You are essentially facing the same situation.

That's not to say battling the elements is always the same under all conditions. For example, wood is in short supply in many urban settings as it would be in most deserts. Starting a fire in the center of your living room or in an arctic area may not be a viable solution to provide heat.

There are cases where urban survival may include dealing with natural or man made disasters, earthquakes or chemical spills. These events are frequently different enough in an urban setting to warrant coverage here.

However, for most people, the heart of the matter when discussing urban survival is self-defense. If you are dead, it really doesn't matter that the car jacker didn't get your BMW, or that your VCR is still sitting on the shelf. Your primary goal should always be to minimize conflict, stay alive and stay intact. This is best accomplished by avoiding trouble. Self-defense includes a lot more than just the many options for physically protecting your life. The legal and moral ramifications for those options are just as important.

Your Laws Matter Most

Every country, state, county, city and town has laws, as well as policies, both written and un-written, that can affect your options. It is absolutely vital that you understand how these affect your personal situation. We suggest that you speak to a criminal defense attorney where you live to find out what your rights and responsibilities are, what's legal and what's not. Don't ask a generalist, ask a specialist. Do not ask the cop on the corner, do not ask your friend who "knows a lot," and please don't ask us. We're not attorneys, we don't claim to be attorneys. The difference in the law between Peoria, Arizona and Chandler, Arizona is significant. The difference in law between Peoria, Arizona, and Peoria, Illinois, is huge. The difference in law between Paris, Texas, U.S.A. and Paris, France is simply mind-boggling. Don't just assume; ask a competent source.

Be Aware

Before you even think about a means of self-defense, you should learn how to be aware and how to avoid trouble. The best weapons, the best training and the coolest gear won't do you any good if you are oblivious to your surroundings. Being aware of your surroundings usually means you can avoid the situation before it imperils your life. Knowing how to defuse a potentially deadly situation is just another tool with which to defend yourself. Ultimately, avoiding or defusing a confrontation before physical force is required is the best self-defense.

Force Continuum

Most communities require that the force you use to defend yourself be in proportion to the force of the attack. That makes both moral and common sense. For example, it is usually not legal, and never morally acceptable or ethical, in our opinion, to kill someone for a perceived insult. When attacks turn physical, the acceptability of a particular type of force varies from community to community. It may also vary with the individual being attacked and by whom. A six foot 6 inch 250 pound young football player being attacked with fists by a five foot 4 inch 110 pound old man is not likely going to be legally allowed the same use of force as might be allowed the old man if the roles were reversed. The morality and ethics of the response will also differ in such circumstances. This concept is referred to as "disparity of force."

The force you may use to defend your possessions also varies. Is it moral or ethical to kill someone who is stealing your stereo? In most places that would not be considered acceptable. What if they are stealing the only food you have to feed your family, putting them at risk? Sometimes there are no easy answers and sometimes the legal, moral and ethical issues collide.

While pacifists may debate the point, from our perspective it is always morally and ethically acceptable, if not necessarily desirable, to kill someone who is attacking you with the apparent intent to physically seriously harm or kill you or your loved ones. It may or may not be legal, depending upon where you live.

The force continuum covers the range of force from minimal to lethal force. Lethal force means force capable of inflicting permanent serious injury such as blindness, loss of a limb or death. This would include stabbing, shooting and breaking or crushing bones as an example. The force continuum, the force that is acceptable as a response to a particular threat, varies from place to place. In some communities the concept of self-defense doesn't exist. If you harm someone while protecting your property or person, you may be legally and criminally liable. If you live someplace like that, our urban survival advice is simple…move.


Since the force continuum changes from place to place, we will simply present various options from least violent to more violent. You are responsible for knowing your local laws and to determining which options are available to you.


Merely being present or using timers and lights to create the illusion of being present, is a deterent.

It is also important that you don't make the erroneous assumption that just because a criminal is interested in burglary or vandalism, that they won't become violent if the opportunity presents itself. In some areas 30% of the rapes occur in the victims home when "non-violent" burglars discover the victim is home.

The advantages include cost, virtually nothing for timers and lights and this requires no training. The disadvantage is that this only works on the timid or casual burglars, not the pros or the druggies.

Verbal and Sound Makers

travel alarm Yelling "fire" or "help" to attract attention might work if you are in an area where people can hear you, and they are willing to help, and they are able to help, This is a very limiting list if requirements. Many people have said "Don't worry, the criminal is more scared than you are." These are probably the same people that think criminals are afraid of the light or obey some arbitrary list of un-written rules to stay in so-called "bad neighborhoods."

Whistles, sirens and bells extend the range of your cry for assistance. Sirens and bells make it easier to signal if someone is holding a hand over your mouth or throat. If they are loud enough, they may startle a timid assailant and give you an opportunity to make an escape, but we don't think it's worth betting your life on such an outcome. They are almost useless if you are in your home and you are trying to signal your neighbors. They might not be home, they might not care and in most cases they probably won't be able to hear you.

Installation of an alarm system falls into this catagory. Alarms will discourage thieves interested only in property theft or vandalism. If the house is alarmed or it appears you are home, and your neighbor's appears more vulnerable, odds are your neighbor will be the one targeted. The common burglar is generally looking for easy pickings, the pro may be more difficult to dissuade. Now if you have a few tens of thousands of dollars of desirable electronic equipment and your neighbor has only a boom box and a 19-ich TV, well that might tip the scales towards you again. It's a risk versus reward equation.

The advantages to this catagory include low cost and no training requirement. Alarms can get pricey if you get a comprehensive one. An important advantage to this catagory is that these options are legal virtually everywhere in the world. Alarm systems frequently require inexpensive permits. The disadvantages are that you are basically relying on the kindness of others for protection and it may not be effective except on very timid criminals.

Martial Arts and Unarmed Combat

Both joint lock techniques that trap and control your opponent and empty-hand strikes such as punches or open hand strikes are aspects of unarmed combat, as are some more sophisticated manual means of resisting an attack. Martial arts can be effective under certain conditions. We are not fans of relying solely on martial arts where more effective options are available.

The advantages of martial arts and unarmed combat are that you can take your hands anywhere they are always with you. No weapons screening will deprive you of them. Martial Arts training can also help with providing you a positive state of mind, though one must be very careful not to confuse this with over-confidence which can be extremely dangerous.

Probably the biggest disadvantage is that it takes a lot of time and effort to become even reasonably proficient at unarmed combat. You have to find a school or course where the emphasis is street fighting and not tournaments or exercise. This sort of instruction is harder to find than you might imagine. Most martial arts schools today stress tournament style "fighting." It is also very important to recognize that even a martial artist with years of experience would not necessarily be the victor in a unarmed confrontation with a semi-skilled thug who happens to have a knife, let alone a gun.

Finally, keep in mind that under certain circumstances, such as a disparity of force situation, unarmed techniques can be considered lethal force.

Self-defense sprays

OC Spray There are various sprays you can get for self-defense purposes. There are three main chemicals you can get over the counter in most areas. These are CS, CN and OC. CS is Ortho cloromalononitrile, CN is Chloroacetophenone and OC ios Oleoresin Capsicum. OC is by far the most effective under normal conditions and has pretty much replaced the other two for most civilian uses. OC is available in canisters ranging from a pen sized half-ounce dispenser up to a 20-ounce fire extinguisher-sized spray and even truck sized riot control vehicles.

When selecting a spray unit there are several factors to consider such as the chemical, concentration, spray pattern, trigger mechanism and size of the unit. We will assume the chemical is OC, because we already told you it's the most effective, so that's the one you'll get if you're reading this. The concentration of pepper can range from a paltry half a percent, which used to be sold as a dog spray, up to 10%. The quality of the peppers can range from unknown to about 13% capcinoids. Capcinoids are the hot part of the pepper. In other words, the quality can vary greatly. We will do a follow up article which compares most of the makes and models on the market.

There are several spray patterns available. There are narrow streams, foggers and compromise systems that are somewhere in-between. The narrow stream must be aimed accurately and it can be very difficult to hit someone with it, but can reach 15 to 20 feet and is affected less by wind. The fogger units might only reach as little as four feet, but it is a large cone shaped pattern that hoses down everything in front of you. However, even a slight wind can greatly reduce the effectiveness, possibly even blowing it into your own face, incapacitating you. That would not be a pleasant experience and is hardly an effective deterrent.

The advantage to these sprays is range. If you can produce the spray from wherever you carry it quickly enough, you can spray an attacker from outside of arms length and not have to get close to them. These sprays are also inexpensive and require little training or experience, most people carrying them have none. Some minimal training will allow you to more effectively utilize these sprays.

There are also several disadvantages to these sprays. They are illegal in many areas and cannot be taken on board aircraft although the FAA recently changed thier rules to allow up to a 4 ounce canister t obe packed in your luggage. Check with the airline before you fly. Sprays are difficult to use if the assailant has already grabbed you and is holding you closely. They also show greatly diminished effect on people who are high on drugs or drunk. The most important limitation to consider is that it is a pain compliance measure. If it hurts, they might stop the attack. If they don't, if they are immune to pain, or really want you badly, there is nothing in the spray that will physically stop them.

Blinding Light

Sure-Fire 6P Flashlight Anyone who has accidentally looked directly into a bright focused light understands that it can be momentarily disabling. That moment may be all you need to escape. The recent advent of extremely bright small flashlights makes such a defense an option for night use.

The advantages are relatively low to moderate cost and little need for training. Moreover, nobody is going to perceive a flashlight as a weapon, so that issue never arises. They also have other defensive uses as noted below.

The downsides are that it is primarily effective only at night or in dim lighting conditions and that for the smaller affordable lights you must be at close range and you need to be able to aim it at the eyes, not always possible depending upon how you are attacked.

Stun Guns and Tasers

Stun Gun These are handheld electronic devices that can give someone a nasty electrical shock. Stun guns have two to four electrodes that require you to actually touch the person to stun them. Tasers shoot out two electrodes to a distance of about fifteen to twenty feet and can shock the person remotely. To a timid aggressor the sizzling of the arc between electrodes can be dissuading itself, though that could hardly be counted upon. The only advantage to stun guns is that they are only moderately expensive and they might work in the right circumstances. The disadvantage is that in many areas they are regulated as firearms or are completely forbidden. Despite being advertised as non-lethal, they do have the potential to be fatal under some circumstances. They won't bother many people who are drunk, high on drugs or highly motivated. In addition, stun guns require you to be very close to your attacker; essentially you must engage them to bring it into play.

Tasers are fairly pricey and only give you one shot to neutralize your attacker. You can't shoot twice. While this is a valuable tool in a police officer's less-than-lethal-force toolbox, this is a poor choice as your self-defense weapon.

Impact Weapons

Batons There are several types of impact weapons. The first group consists of everyday items such as flashlights and pens that can be used as impact weapons. The other group consists of purpose made impact weapons that may or may not serve other purposes. Examples include nightsticks, tonfa, nunchucks, batons and various other implements.

The advantage of impact weapons is their low cost and easy availability. I don't know of any jurisdiction where flashlights are illegal. Another key advantage is that impact weapons destroy the basic frame of your assailant. If you break your assailants arm, he can't hit you with it. Impact weapons do not have to depend on pain control techniques. Impact weapons can be effective with minimal training, butt their effectiveness is raised as your skill with it increases, but that takes time and effort.

Added disadvantages are that using an impact weapon requires strength and closing with your assailant. As a general rule, you really want to stay away from the threat, not close with it.

Edged weapons.

Spyderco Knife The most important thing to remember about knives is this definition. A fighting knife is the knife you have with you when you get in a fight! Even a small blade can be devistatingly effective at close quarters, especially if you are trained. However, if you normally carry a bowie knife with a foot long blade, train with it. If you study sword fighting and carry a 3-inch lock back folding knife, you are going to be unprepared for a fight. There's an old saying, "I'd rather have a .22 in my pocket than a .45 in the safe at home". This means buying large heavy knives or guns that you aren't going to carry or can't conceal is not going to help you when you don't have it.

The advantage to edged weapons includes low cost and very widespread availability. Knives are also available in smaller, and generally lighter packages than are most impact weapons and are therefore easier to carry and conceal. There are also many legitimate reasons to have a knife or "mess kit" where weapons are otherwise prohibited.

While there are many aggressive looking knives that may be appealing esthetically, from a practical standpoint a simple one-hand opening folding knife with a conventional looking, non-aggressive, "non-threatening" blade can be just as effective in most situations. These "pocket knives" will often pass scrutiny by a security weapons check. Knives also require less physical strength than most impact weapons to be effective. Even a small person can be lethal with a knife.

Another key advantage is that edged weapons cut. They can slice the muscles, tendons and vascular system of your assailant. If you cut the tendons in your assailants arm, he can't hit you with it. If you slide the tendons behind the knee, he cannot pursue you. While a knife cut or stab is painful, edged weapons do not have to depend solely upon pain control techniques. They can be physically disabling.

The downside of edged weapons is that they are unlawful or severely limited in many places. Limits may include size and where they can be carried. To be most effective with an edged weapon you need skill (which requires training, and dexterity. You also have to get very close to your attacker to use a knife.

There are some martial arts, such as Escrima, which teach stick and knife fighting. If this is one of your chosen weapons, there are formal schools where you can learn to fight. The combination of an OC spray with a knife is a devastating combination that is much more effective than either one individually.


Revolver This is generally the most effective choice you can make in a self-defense tool. The firearm is capable of reaching out at a distance and striking your assailant hard enough to disable or kill them. Firearms cause destruction, shock and blood loss in order to physically stop an assault. The primary advantages of firearms for self-defense include effectiveness and range. When used properly, they are the most effective way to stop an attack. You don't have to get close to your assailant. In many cases, simply presenting the firearm will stymie the attack.

There are, however, several disadvantages to the use of firearms. Owning and using firearms is a huge responsibility, both legally and morally. You have to keep them secure while carrying them and storing them. Firearms are heavily regulated everywhere in the world, illegal in many places. Extreme care must be taken in use of a firearm, lest you hurt an innocent person. Firearms are an all or nothing solution; to be used effectively you must be prepared to kill your attacker. You can't "wing" an assailant or fire a warning shot to stop someone. Almost all of the things you have seen done in the movies and on TV are impossible or impractical in real life. Movies are great fun, but they are make believe, not training films.

A good firearm is fairly expensive. You don't want a bad one because unlike edged weapons and impact weapons, firearms can malfunction, leaving you defenseless, or even causing you life-threatening injuries themselves.

Safe and effective use of a firearm in self-defense requires training. You need training in the physical process of shooting the firearm and training in the legal and ethical implications of using it. You must continue to practice, at no small expense, to maintain proficiency with the weapon. Improper use or lack of training or proficiency can do much worse than not allowing the effective use of the weapon; it can injure, maim, or kill innocent bystanders.

What Kind Of Firearm?

M-1911 Semi-Automatic Pistol Handguns are small, easily concealable where that is allowed, and easy to carry. Remember the definition of a fighting knife? The same applies to a firearm. If you want to carry a firearm for security or if you will be in extremely close quarters, you pretty much have to use a handgun. It is much harder to hit your target with a handgun than you might think. Handguns require the most practice of any firearm to use effectively and safely. A handgun must also be carried securely to prevent others, such as children, from getting their hands on it. There is also considerable diversity in handguns and selecting one that's right for you is not so simple. It requires time and effort to learn what the options are and what will be the best handgun for you, not the guy trying to sell you something.

While generally considered as hunting weapons, there are several reasons why you might select a rifle or a shotgun for use in an urban setting. One reason may be the law. In many highly populated urban areas, and in many countries, handguns are essentially forbidden to law-abiding people. This leaves the criminals with illegal handguns against the law-abiding citizenry who can only rely upon rifles and shotguns.

Shotgun Shotguns and rifles are generally easier to shoot and require less training than do handguns in order to operate them safely and effectively. Rifles and shotguns are also generally more effective at stopping an assailant than a handgun is. One significant disadvantage to these long arms is that they are more difficult to use in close quarters, if that is a concern.

Shotguns are available in many jurisdictions where every other firearm is illegal. If you are unfortunate enough to live in such a place, then your choice is made for you. The advantage to a shotgun over anything else is dramatic one-shot effectiveness. Shot for shot, shotguns are more effective against man-sized targets than anything else. One serious drawback is the reliability of the shotgun, the difficulty of malfunction clearance. Those shotguns that are most effective also exhibit daunting recoil.

Rifle - Carbine Rifles are much easier to shoot than any other firearm with minimal training. Most rifles that would be considered for self-defense use have less recoil than would a shotgun. Rifles are easier to get on target, they are lighter, are more reliable and it is easier to clear malfunctions.

Firearms require the careful selection of ammunition and what you select may be determined by where you live or might use the firearm. The ammo you select has to be capable of stopping an attacker, who may be large and high on drugs and dressed in heavy over-clothes, while at the same time minimizing the danger of injuring others. You don't want a shot to penetrate a wall to imperil others not even in the same room. Special ammo is available that helps prevent such tragedy, but ultimately, the solution is to hit your target, letting the target absorb the bullet. That gets us back to training and maintaining proficiency.


Firearms Training Before you get too hung up on the toys, let's make it perfectly clear that training and skills are far more important than the latest whiz-bang neato laser do-dad. If we had a dollar for every guy that bought five different rifles and couldn't shoot any of them, we'd be rich. Beware the man with one gun. Because, if he's smart, he put the money he saved into competent training and practice.

Get training and then practice what you learned. There are good schools where you can get self-defense training. It only takes a few minutes of dry firing (practice without live ammo) every night to increase your skill level. The things you need to look for in a school are decent facilities, competent instructors and a willingness to teach what works. There are many effective methods of firearms training and use. There are lots of opinions about what is good and bad and what works and what doesn't. Listen to what is offered and use some common sense. Any school that is absolutely dogmatic about a particular technique without being able to explain why they recommend it should be avoided. "Because we said so" does not constitute an explanation. Effective use of a weapon is based on thoughtful considerations of the mechanics involved and physiological and psychological implications of its use, considerations you should understand if you are going to depend upon those methods. Don't be afraid to ask questions and shop around.

You should also find out about the instructor that will be teaching you. There are many schools opened up by famous instructors who don't teach anymore and whom you will never meet. There is nothing wrong with that if the other instructors are hand picked by the senior instructor and are competent instructors in their own right. If the school lets any student who wants to be an instructor teach, their teaching ability could be questionable. Inquire about the background of your instructor, not just the guy whose name is on the business or whose face is on the brochure.

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Publisher and Editor: Doug Ritter
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First Published: September 5, 2001
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