The so-called “tactical pen”, so often carried and so often recommended to EDC neophytes, is as frequently reviled as it is lauded. It, or a variant like the “self-defense pen” is variously described as an EDC necessity, a field-expedient Kubotan, a vital gray man implement, and at least once as “…the most important low profile self-defense tool you can carry.” The latter characterization is, by my estimation, a grandiose overstatement from a melodramatic sales pitch1 but there’s no arguing that a tactical pen can be a useful part of someone’s EDC (Every Day Carry) “loadout”. This is particularly true in what is often referred to as a “Non-Permissive Environment”, but just like anything it’s only as good as a person’s willingness — and ability — to use it.
What is a tactical pen?
Tactical is a grossly over-used term, as most people reading this article would likely agree. So, for the purposes of this article, let’s just agree that tactical means something specifically intended for violent use to righteously (i.e. legally and moral) as a defensive implement to settle a problem or conflict.
A tactical pen (the one at the link is a very good one, though there are others) should first and foremost function as a pen. It should also look like a pen — not something from a Warhammer 40K painting. If it doesn’t function as a writing implement (I suppose it doesn’t have to function well), it’s just a cool, sorta-disguised spike. The best kind will be non-descript, something you can carry in mufti into most any location. This is counter to the reinforced, “over-engineered” design they so often by necessity have.
Why a pen? It’s perfectly reasonable to have one on your person. Writing implements are one of the most frequently overlooked components of and EDC loadout, “get-home bag”, or the like. The capability of writing something down cannot be overstated, particularly in today’s digital world. You can’t go wrong having a pen and paper on board and is particularly easy with a pack or bag.
Plus, it’s both ninja and tacti-cool.
As Ed Calderon points out, according to the Shoninki, a medieval ninja document written by Natori Masatake in 1681, the “essential gear for shinobi,” a ninja, was:
- Amigasa: 編笠 – Wide-brimmed hat
- Kaginawa: 鉤縄 – Grappling hook
- Sekihitsu: 石筆 – Slate pencil
- Kusuri: 薬 – Field medicine
- Sanjaku Tenugui: 三尺手拭 – Three-foot cloth
- Uchitake: 打竹 – Striking bamboo (tool for starting fire)
Ask John Wick. He’ll confirm this.
We’re not sure if he prefers a #2 to something else, but we do know he’s perfectly capable of doing social work…
All that said, there are basically two kinds of tactical pen — the ones that are clearly intended to be tactical, and those that are not. The former is fine for most everyday carry, but will rarely make it onto a plane and only sometimes into other such “denied access” areas as courthouses.
Using a tactical pen
Tactical pens are no good for ideophones and won’t prevent paragraphia, but there’s no doubt they can be very persuasive — and not just with cleverly written words. They’re good for writing, of course, but that’s not the real point is it? (See what we did there?) No, their primary use in a close-quarter self-defense situation is going to be as an impromptu impact weapon like the Kubotan or dulo-dulo. These are great for pressure-point manipulation, though it might be simpler to use it as a piercing self-defense weapon to punch holes in some minacious booger-eater who threatens you with bodily harm.
“Is the tactical pen a viable option in a combative or self-defense situation? I believe they are. I have carried for many years, all forms of small and portable impact tools, in and out of uniform. These nondescript concealable tools provide options inside and outside of the realm of deadly force. The dedicated application of a little swift pressure to particular nerve pockets of the body is an impressive and viable persuasive technique when convincing someone to move, let go or generally stop what they’re doing.” Wes Doss, Gun Talk
There are additional functions that make a tactical- or self-defense pen more useful; those functions, specifically the presence of a glass-breaking tip, are arguably more useful (and more likely to be used) than the reinforced build of the pen itself.
There is a problem, however. Kubotan use requires training — spiking someone through the skull or punching it through a throat requires a level of mental preparation and visceral determination that many people just really don’t have. Unfortunately, many people think of pain compliance techniques and “come-along” holds less than they do going full sewing-machine on someone Jason Bourne-style.
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Why? Because bourbon, bacon and bullets cost money, and we like all three.
Bourne killed this assassin with a regular ole’ desktop pen. Imagine what he could’ve done with an assault massacre tactical pen that with a high capacity ink reservoir?
The Tactical Pen and the TSA
Now, when it comes to air travel and the TSA, a tactical pen is not allowed — but a non-tactical pen is. What defines a tactical pen? Well, presumably it begins with anything marketed as a tactical pen. It’s going to be hard to argue against a TSA agent who denies your preferred implement if he can pull your pen up on Amazon Prime and see it marked TACTICAL PEN. The same goes for SELF-DEFENSE PEN.
“Rinaldo wrote me a deathly song there, and keen was the stylus.” Conan the Cimmerian
What about a pen that is not marketed as a tactical pen? One would hope a situation like this would be determined by something similar to the objective reasonableness standard (might as well make Graham v. Connor work for you scribes and scriveners too), but this is the TSA we’re talking about. You may encounter a perfectly reasonable, well-informed TSA representative, but you might also encounter a bellicose supervisor (or worse yet, an authoritarian fuckwit). Individual experiences may vary. Remember this, however: in the end, any determination of what’s allowed and what’s verboten is at the discretion of the TSA.
This is a general screenshot from the TSA website, https://www.tsa.gov/.
This pen is one is a customized writing implement I got from Derrick Obatake at Steel Flame. I carried it several times through TSA without issue, then one day TSA turned me around with it. Since the choice was lose it or leave the line to put it in a carry-on, I did, missing my flight but keeping my pen. Since then I haven’t hazarded it. I carry a very nice traveler’s Mont Blanc that Tim the Russian gave me as a gift and have other options in my carry-on for exigent self-defense (or to see in the dark2).
Several years ago there was apparently an article on the TSA blog mentioning the confiscation of a “tactical pen” (several years after they were becoming a trendy EDC thing).
That post reportedly read,
The Things Passengers Bring
When is a pen not just a pen? The answer is when it doubles as a potential weapon.
A TSO at Palm Beach International (Fla.) was working the X-ray machine when he came across an anomaly on the screen and called for a search of a passenger’s backpack. Inside, the responding Officer discovered a tactical pen, used commonly by law enforcement as a defense tool with its sharp aluminum-based point on one end and blunt portion on the other.
A Supervisory TSO confirmed that item was a prohibited item. The police responded and issued the passenger a criminal summons to appear in court – under the state statute – for carrying a concealed weapon. He was cleared for travel and there were no flight delays.
That may or may not actually have happened, though the url linked in most reports does still show up, albeit with nothing to read:
So — you takes your pen, you takes your chances.
Lookin’ to learn more? Read Phil Elmore’s article on the matter at Personal Defense World.
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1 Personally I think this phrase more accurately describes a tactical flashlight or EDC trauma kit (or both, preferably). More on that in another article.
2 Like I said, tactical flashlight.