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Brain Buckets, Tin Hats, and Steel Pots: Helmets Have Improved Over Nearly a Century of Use

It’s hard not to get a sickening feeling, staring at photographs of all the gallant young soldiers, resplendent in their uniforms, marching so proudly off to fight what would become known as The Great War, or World War I, in the late summer and early fall of 1914. Intoxicated with romantic notions of honor, glory and empire, none of them had a clue about what awaited them. They didn’t realize they represented the final, glittering moments of a centuries-long epoch that would end once the machine guns opened up on them. It was this moment, students of history like saying, when the 20th century actually began.

Or maybe it began a year later, in 1915, when British and French generals started looking for ways to reduce the high level of head wounds inflicted upon soldiers in the trenches by shrapnel. The first solution came from the French; a steel skullcap worn under a cloth cap.

Or maybe it began a year later, in 1915, when British and French generals started looking for ways to reduce the high level of head wounds inflicted upon soldiers in the trenches by shrapnel. The first solution came from the French; a steel skullcap worn under a cloth cap. But when this proved ineffective, Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian designed something that did work. It was a steel helmet, round with a curved front and back rim. On top was a metal deflector crest to provide additional protection from overhead artillery bursts. It was known as the “Adrian Helmet,” and was used not only by the French army, but also by the Poles, Russians, Serbs, Chinese, Greeks, Italians and a dozen other nations. It was even used by some American troops.

Adrian Helmet

French soldiers amongst the ruins of a cathedral near the Marne, during World War I, circa 1918. All the French soldiers in the photo are wearing the Adrian Helmet. National Archives photo

The British quickly followed suit. Their design, known as the “Brodie helmet,” for its inventor John L. Brodie, was shallow with a wide brim and, unlike the French Adrian, which was made from three separate pieces, was stamped from a single sheet of thick steel. Contrary to popular belief, neither the British nor French helmet was designed to protect its wearer from a bullet.

Contrary to popular belief, neither the British nor French helmet was designed to protect its wearer from a bullet.

Though the Brodie helmet was criticized by some for not providing protection on the sides, the U.S. military adopted it when it entered war in 1917, first by buying 400,000 from the British, then manufacturing more than a million and a half of their own. In U.S. service its official designation was the M1917, but everyone called it either the “tin hat,” or simply, the “doughboy” helmet. It was used by the U.S. military through the 1920s and 30s, with only a minor modification in 1926.

Brodie Helmet

British soldiers enjoy the view from a captured German trench. The soldiers are all wearing the iconic Brodie helmet. One soldier is pointing to a sign which says the ‘Old Hun Line.” National Library of Scotland photo

Even before the U.S. entered World War II, the War Department had planned to replace the M1917 helmet with a deeper, more dome-like design that gave better protection. But the new helmet, designated the M1, didn’t get issued to the troops until well into 1942. Timing, they say, is everything, and somehow in the process, the old helmet became associated in the American psyche with the early humiliating defeats at Pearl Harbor, Wake Island, and the Philippines. By the same stroke, without anyone ever having to point it out, the new M1 became symbolic of America’s resurgence and unstoppable drive to victory. In the entire world’s mind, the M1 symbolized America.

By the same stroke, without anyone ever having to point it out, the new M1 became symbolic of America’s resurgence and unstoppable drive to victory. In the entire world’s mind, the M1 symbolized America.

Twenty-two million M1s were made during World War II, and another million during the 1960s. The helmet was also used by dozens of armies, including allies, client states and even neutral nations. Rather than return to the old Stalhelm, the Austrian army chose the M1 to help symbolize their break with the Nazi past. When newly post-communist Czechoslovakia participated in Operation Desert Storm in 1990 and 91, its troops went into combat wearing M1 helmets which the military had mysteriously managed to acquire just before shipping out. For them, nothing symbolized who they really were more than the same U.S. Army helmet worn by Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army soldiers when they liberated Pilsen in 1945.

Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT)

A U.S. Marine mans an M-249 squad automatic weapon at the 2nd Marine Division Combat Operations Center (COC) during Operation Desert Storm. The Marine is wearing the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) helmet. U.S. Department of Defense photo

Besides being iconic, the M1 helmet was good for a lot of things; carrying foraged eggs and fruit, shaving, cooking, and washing socks. But stopping bullets was not necessarily one of them. It might deflect a ricochet round, but a dead-on shot from the front, back or the sides went straight through it.  The M1 helmet remained in the American military’s inventory for forty years, undergoing only very minimal modifications when it went back into production in the 1960s.

In the mid-1980s, the M1 was replaced by the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops, or PASGT, which soldiers mostly just called the “Kevlar.” Slightly heavier than its predecessor, the PASGT was pretty well guaranteed to stop any shrapnel or even a glancing 7.62 round, though stopping a dead-on round was still unlikely. Despite the increased protection it offered, it was not immediately popular with the GIs, who found that they could not wash their hair, feet, socks, or underwear in it. It also wasn’t comfortable and slid around the head. Soldiers often stuffed washcloths in them to make them halfway comfortable.

Despite the increased protection it offered, it was not immediately popular with the GIs, who found that they could not wash their hair, feet, socks, or underwear in it. It also wasn’t comfortable and slid around the head. Soldiers often stuffed washcloths in them to make them halfway comfortable.

By the late 1990s, the Army began developing a replacement for the PASGT, which would be lighter, yet provide greater ballistic protection. First came the MICH, the Modular Integrated Communications Helmet. It used a more advanced form of Kevlar, and was slightly smaller than the PASGT, lacking a brim in the front and covering less of the area around the ears, in order to provide less obstruction to vision and hearing. The MICH was initially developed for the Army’s special operations forces, but it was seen as such an improvement over the PASGT that it went into wider production in a slightly different form as the Advanced Combat Helmet, or ACH.

The ACH gets high marks from the men and women wearing it. Any soldier taking a full-on 7.62 round wearing one will probably live to complain about what will hopefully be the single-worst headache and neck ache of his or her life. It is also much more comfortable than the PASGT, thanks to its four-point chin strap and inner head pads that can be added or removed for a good fit. The ACH has a mounting bracket built into the front for attaching the PVS-14 Night Vision Monocle. There is a strap for attaching an add-on Kevlar “nape pad” for protecting the neck area between the helmet’s back edge and the top of the Interceptor Body Armor’s collar.

Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH)

Sgt. Cody Outcalt shows Spc. Ronald Heater, both soldiers of 2nd Platoon, Apache Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment, where he spotted possible enemy troops moving in the distance while on a foot patrol in southern Afghanistan, July 30, 2012. All three soldiers in the picture are wearing the Advanced Combat Helmet (ACH). U.S. Army photo

As good as the ACH is, a successor helmet is already in low-rate production. The Enhanced Combat Helmet, or ECH, is virtually identical to the ACH, but it is lighter and thicker. Instead of being made from Kevlar fibers, it uses a special ballistic plastic called “Ultra-High Molecular Weight Polyethylene,” which the Army says provides a 35 percent improvement in ballistic protection. It will also carry sensors on it for collecting data on head injuries and trauma when they occur, so that the generation of helmets that follow it will be even better.

By

Brendan McNally is a journalist and writer specializing in defense and aerospace. Brendan began his career...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-130659">

    My father did not get an M 1 1941 helmet until he was shipped to England with the U.S. 5th Armored Division in March 1944. Up until that time,he wore an over seas cap or a Montana peaked Campaign hat.

    li class="comment odd alt thread-odd thread-alt depth-1" id="comment-131136">

    Greg, That is seriously one for the books. Thanks for sending.

    cheers, Brendan

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-132909">

    My father was a Medical Doctor; and wore a Montana peaked Campaign hat when he was in the horse cavalry. (1942- 1944) That was when he was with the U.S. 2nd CAVALRY DIVISION at Fort Clark,Texas.