a brief history of the combat helmet

I spent last Remembrance Day, as is my habit, watching old war movies and thinking about the bad old days, when I was young enough to think that war was a kind of entertainment.

I spent last Remembrance Day, as is my habit, watching old war movies and thinking about the bad old days, when I was young enough to think that war was a kind of entertainment.

In the early ‘60s, when I was a boy playing soldier, war surplus gear was cheap and easy to come by in most second hand stores.

I had a collection of genuine military helmets to wear when I wanted to play war, and to share with my similarly war-minded playmates – both American and British style helmets.

I started thinking about those helmets Wednesday, and about how both the technology and function of combat helmets has changed over the last four decades.

The modern combat helmet is a battlefield innovation that came about in response to one of the most important innovations in military history – the invention of accurate, indirect artillery fire.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the metal helmet had long been a thing of the past.

When it was used at all, it was largely for ornamental purposes, as with cavalry on parade at Buckingham Palace.

Metal helmets may have served a protective purpose in the days when soldiers whaled on each other with swords and axes, but they were of no particular use in the age of bullets and cannon balls.

When you are shooting at an enemy from any distance with a rifle, you are much more likely to aim for the torso than for the head, which is a much more difficult target.

Similarly, cannon balls and grape shot (really just loose stuff fired from a canon, and designed to cause maiming and mayhem at close range) were geared to inflicting bodily injury, not head damage.

But once artillery men perfected the art of lobbing shells long distances overhead, beyond even their line of sight, the rules of the game changed, as the generals in the First World War soon found out.

By early in 1915, the French military command noticed they were losing a lot of soldiers to head injuries, because of artillery fire coming down from above on their entrenched positions.

Their response was the rapid development and deployment of the distinctive French steel helmet, called the Adrian.

The British quickly followed suit, coming up with the soup-bowl “Brodie” helmet in the same year (it was named after the inventor who patented the design and production process).

The Germans, being German, were slower off the mark, but more thorough in their design studies; they produced their “stahlhelm” (which is just German for steel helmet), by 1916 – the helmet that you see them wearing in all those old war movies.

The stahlhelm, with its superior ear and cheek protection, was much the best design in the battlefield of the time, though it was much more difficult and costly to manufacture.

The British Brodie helmet (which was also used by the Canadians and other Imperial troops) was probably the least effective design, but it had the advantage that it could be manufactured from a single piece of steel, and was therefore easy to produce in mass quantities.

The Americans adopted the Brodie helmet when they entered the war in 1918 (though some of the early units used the French Adrian for a while), and stuck with it until they got around to producing their own one – the M1 helmet – in 1942.

The M1 helmet marked a significant advance over the helmets used by other armies, in that it came in two parts – the light-weight “liner” (really just a kind of hard hat) and the steel “shell,” which could be clipped onto the liner when the shells really started to fly.

American manufacturing capacity being what it was and is, that helmet went on to become standard issue for a whole host of different countries, most of them more or less allied with the USA.

The M1 helmet became so ubiquitous, in fact, that it started posing a problem for armies that wanted to fight each other.

In the famously futile “Soccer War” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, for instance, both armies wore the same uniforms and sported the same M1 helmets, with the result that neither side could easily tell friend from foe.

Now, though the M1 is still often used by the US military for parade purposes, new helmet designs, exploiting Kevlar technology, have become standard issue; furthermore the purpose of the helmet has also changed slightly.

The helmets of the first and second World Wars were designed to provide protection from shrapnel, not from small arms fire.

In the modern era of smart bombs and bunker-busting missiles, that kind of head protection is pretty much obsolete.

The modern combat helmet is designed to serve as a fairly light weight hard hat, and also to provide protection from small arms like the Third World’s weapon of choice, the AK 47.

As the ongoing campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, the modern Kevlar helmets really are very effective at saving lives in the close-combat conditions of modern street fighting, where improvised explosive devices have replaced artillery as the main threat to fear.

It seems the USA has its helmet technology right. Too bad it can’t pick its fights better.

Rick Steele is a technology junkie

who lives in Whitehorse.

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