For decades, consensus dictated that the best military helmets in the history of war were the American M1 and the German Stahlhelm. Their superior design proved to be so effective that most military forces in the world adopted one version or the other as a model for their own protective gear.
Both WW2 helmets came as a product of constant learning from the conditions of modern combat. The old World War I helmets with their distinctively protruding rims were designed for trench battles and sieges. They would protect the wearer from falling shell splinters, shrapnel, and other vertical threats. The Brodie helmet and the French Adrian helmets are two good examples of protective headgear designed to counter exploding overhead shrapnel. However, these models were known for being incredibly unbalanced and uncomfortable.
As warfare tactics changed, the need to protect a soldier’s head from bullets and horizontal projectiles gave both the German and the American armies an incentive to create helmets that would wrap the wearer´s head more effectively.
By 1916, the Stalhelm became a distinctive feature of Wehrmacht soldiers and, according to official data, it helped to drastically reduce serious head injuries in the field, proving it to be a very successful starting point for later improvement. The Stalhelm was extremely effective at protecting critical parts of the head and brain, and also offered increased visibility. However, the rim that covered the ears and part of the neck, and gave its distinctive appearance, worked against the wearer´s ability to hear on the battlefield.
The US saw the benefits of the German design and came up with various prototypes that leveraged its most important features. The end result was the recognizable M1 helmet, capable of stopping bullets of various calibers and even serving as makeshift field buckets.
These two helmets have been considered the best helmets ever produced, serving as inspiration for today´s military headgear.
However, a recent study claimed that older models, namely the Brodie and the Adrian helmets, proved to be more effective at protecting the brain from threats like shockwaves caused by explosions. The conclusions of this study performed by biomedical engineers from Duke University in 2020 suggested that 100-year-old helmets were at least as good as what modern engineers have been able to design, even with modern materials and techniques.
I was baffled at these results because it goes against the dictates of common sense. Nonetheless, these tests were performed by experts, and the results were based on scientific evidence and rigorous ballistic tests, right?
However, after checking out the methodology, many soon realized that the tests only measured the helmet´s ability to withstand direct overhead explosions. The lack of tests measuring the effect of explosions happening on the X-axis or below suggests that the added features that made both the M1 and the Stalhelm superior at reducing head injuries were not even considered. For example, they ignored the effects of direct impact from shrapnel and bullets that would rarely have a perfect downward trajectory in a real-life scenario.
Despite these underwhelming results, it is good to know that these incredible WW2 helmets still prove to be the best headgear created in the last century. They´re very sought after by collectors, and they are still being crafted by specialized stores like At The Front. Their US and German military gear are top-notch and up to specs in every respect. Plus, the store is run by people who probably know more about historic military gear than any group of university hacks.