Three authentic historical WWI infantry combat helmets were acquired for blast testing

Saturday, March 14th, 2020

Helmets on Hybrid III Head in Test SetupAt the start of the Great War, helmets were not standard equipment for any of the Allied or Central Powers, but they were quickly adopted once it become clear that over fifty per cent of fatalities occurred due to shrapnel or artillery shell fragments, often striking the head:

In 1915, France was the first nation in WWI to equip soldiers with steel helmets, utilizing the M15 Adrian helmet, named after the design by General Adrian. Inventor John L. Brodie addressed the British need for head protection in late 1915 with a helmet design aimed at shrapnel protection while focusing on ease of manufactur­ing. Other nations also used the Brodie helmet, including the United States when they joined the war in late 1917. After extensive testing of Allied helmets, the Stahlhelm (translation: steel helmet) was rolled out to German soldiers at the start of 1916.

These helmets were designed to protect against fragments, not the primary blast of the high explosive:

Three authentic historical WWI infantry combat helmets including the original lining, were acquired for blast testing: an M15 (1915 model) Adrian Helmet used by the French Army (denoted FRC), an M1916 Stahlhelm used by the Imperial German Army (denoted GER), and an M1917 Brodie Helmet used by the U.S. Army (based on the M1915 British design and denoted AMR). The M1917 Brodie Helmet was manufactured by the Columbian Enameling and Stamping Company (Terre Haute, IN, USA). The Advanced Combat Helmet, the current combat helmet used by the U.S. Army, was included (size large, denoted ACH) for comparison to current combat helmets. A ‘no helmet’ bare head case was used as a control (denoted BAR).


The dummy head was faced downwards, and the center of the head was aligned with the open end of a cylindrical blast tube (schematic in Fig 3). This orientation and blast exposure simulate an overhead blast scenario, as would have been common in trench warfare due to artillery shells exploding above trenches.


An interesting result from these experiments is the blast protective effect provided by the French Adrian helmet, which had a lower crown pressure than all other helmets, despite being manufactured using similar materials as the Stahlhelm and Brodie Helmet, with a thinner helmet wall (Table 1). This result might stem from the deflector crest along the midline of the helmet (Fig 1a). Specifically added with overhead shrapnel in mind, this feature of the helmet could deflect the shock wave off to the side of the head, rather than allow shockwave impingement onto a more planar surface seen in the other helmets. The crest also provides an added first layer for shock wave reflection before reflecting a second time off the helmet itself. The crown pressure sensor used in the measurements was located under the deflector crest and may have experienced a decreased peak pressure because of this. Further studies are needed to see if surface geometry manipulation or helmet attachments may augment the protective capabilities of helmets against blast exposure.

Peak pressures measured in locations other than the crown of the head were much lower because of measurement at an orientation incident to the blast wave and being partly or completely covered by the helmets. In these locations, the Adrian helmet did not provide the same protective advantage seen at the crown. Pressure attenuation was seemingly determined by the width of the brim and/or coverage of the helmet (Fig 2). At the ear, the small brim and limited coverage of the Adrian helmet resulted in higher pressures than the other helmets (Fig 11d), with a corresponding increased risk in eardrum damage (Fig 12). The ACH, without a brim as seen in the historical helmets, had increased pressures at the eye (Fig 11c) but provided similar protection at the other measurement locations.

While ballistic protection provided by helmets has increased significantly since WWI and saved many lives, the results found here suggest that the ACH did not perform quantitatively or qualitatively better than the historical helmets, and performed worse than the Adrian helmet for overhead primary blast at the crown of the head. On the other hand, while ballistic protection has been an active focus in combat helmets design, protection from primary blast has not been an important design element, and the level of protection from primary blast from all of the helmets tested is large compared with the bare head.


  1. Adar says:

    Protection for the back of the neck even more crucial? Spinal column and bones connecting the brain to the rest of the body barely covered by flesh at that point.

  2. Kirk says:

    It’s amazing how many times the old-timers got things right by sheer happenstance. If I remember right, that crest on the Adrian helmet is there because they wanted to cover the ventilation holes in the helmet, and because it was a “style” thing, hearkening back to the old-school chasseur helmets of yore. Appearances were always very important to the French, which was why they were still in bright reds and blues, uniform-wise, at the beginning of the war. British helmet design went back to the sort of helmets they wore during siege operations against French towns, and the Germans came up with theirs by going into the museums. Just like we Americans did–There’s a book I’ve got somewhere that goes over that whole period, and describes how the various countries came to develop their helmets, and it’s fascinating how little “science” went into it all. Very much seat-of-the-pants, all of it.

    And, yet… It would appear that the French got some things right that we’ve yet to recognize ourselves. Sheer luck? Instinct? Who knows.

    It’s also interesting to see them actually conducting blast research on this crap. I was using the Oregon Aero soft pad system in my PASGT kevlar helmet as soon as I learned about the improved results you got out of that system for TBI, being as a friend of mine survived the strike on his helmet only to develop secondary TBI from the suspension system allowing the helmet itself to be driven into his skull, fracturing it. No bullet penetration, but still massively no bueno. The old-school system with the webbing and so forth was essentially useless when it came to the secondary impact, and if you had a large head size, it was even worse, because there was literally no room in there between the webbing and the inside of the helmet. The pad systems were clearly superior on that count, and Oregon Aero was a pioneer in that regard. I think the leader now is Team Wendy, and they got their start because a wife/mother noted that the Marines were still doing the web suspension systems in their new helmets, and she started a public appeal campaign to buy Oregon Aero pads for the Marines, and then started making their own. Now they’re a genuine manufacturer and leader in the industry… Possibly one of the odder “origin stories” for a major military contractor.

    No doubt that the shape of the helmet is important, but I do question whether the overall premise is at all pertinent to today–In the trenches, blast came mostly from overhead. Today? LOL… All aspects, baby–The blast wave may come in from an IED to your right rear, for example, in which case a helmet ridge or crest will likely be useless, and potentially even detrimental as it catches more of that wave, rather than splitting it.

    Explosives effects are fascinating things, and very dependent on variables you often only see in hindsight from the demonstrated blast patterns. I’ve seen blast waves do some really freaky things, like reflect and refract between cloud layers to break windows in a town that was theoretically waaaaay outside the projected danger area for the shots we were doing. Try explaining that one to higher, sometime–”Oh, you claim you didn’t exceed the weight limits on that range? Explain the broken windows in thirty houses, then…”. 35lb limit, largest shot we did was 30lb, and we still broke windows with them, in a town where they’d never broken any windows or even really heard the blasting being done at that range for the last twenty-five years. That one was a little, shall we say, “awkward”? Thank God the boss had his stuff together, or I think we’d have had a few careers ended that night. In the end, they got the meteorologist to take a look at the Doppler radar images and everything else, and he contributed a conclusion that the low dense cloud cover, along with the low temperatures, created “anomalous weather conditions which exacerbated blast effects, directing them in an unexpected direction…”. After that, for a few years, we had to consult with the weather guys before using that range, and if there were clouds…?

  3. Kirk says:

    Yeah, scratch that “Team Wendy” origin thing. It appears I was told erroneous things about where the name came from and how they got started, which I discovered after going to look for a link to the actual history of the company…

    Ah, well… Unexamined and unverified things that you think you know are what usually trip you up.

  4. Kirk says:


    You have to look at the integration of the flak vest with the helmet for that. There are limits to what they can do, given that you have to be able to wear both helmet and body armor standing and prone; if you have great nape-of-the-neck protection, then you can’t get your head far enough back in the prone to be able to effectively defend yourself. Whole thing is a series of trade-offs that have to be made, and you have to prioritize everything. Were you to make the ultimate protect-everything armor, you’d look about like an EOD technician and be unable to fight

    The entire overall concept of body armor and helmet needs some careful re-thinking, from my point of view. We’ve reached a point where the armor is heavy enough that it’s actually causing problems for the troops wearing it, and rendering them immobile enough that the enemy can dance around them unencumbered.

    Some of the problems stem from an essential inability of our military to figure out that if you’re going to have heavily-armored myrmidons doing the fighting, then you have to set the conditions of the battle such that those guys can use their armor at an advantage. What we’ve been doing is basically ceding the enemy the initiative and the advantages in the fight–Our guys are going out looking for them, the enemy gets to pick when and where the fight happens, and then they’re more mobile than we are during the fight. If our certified-geeenioouss academy-educated officer class had the brains God gave a syphilitic amoeba, they’d realize that a.) if you’re gonna go into the fight heavily armored, you’re gonna have to have the enemy with their backs up against the wall, and that b.) if you’re going to go chasing them around the desert, you need to be as light and mobile as they are. These two facts of life seem to be lost on our combat obliviots who’re running things and setting the ROE/operational planning/strategy for all of it.

    Armor has its place, but it has to be integrated into the rest, just like the weapons need to be. Wrong armor, wrong weapons, wrong tactics and strategy…? Failure. Just as we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  5. CVLR says:

    Kirk, you have a funny definition of failure.

    Looks pretty good to me.

  6. Paul from Canada says:

    This study is interesting but not really very relevant.

    We are used to the idea of airburst fused HE today, but back then, it was time fused shrapnel, or impact fused HE. Shrapnel was just a giant flying shotgun shell which threw lead balls with the combined velocity of the shell, and a little extra added by the pushing charge. They did not produce and significant over-pressure. So the helmet didn’t need to protect against overhead blast, and any ground bursting HE round would not be stopped by the helmet either.

    In fact, I read (can’t remember where), of an accident with a shrapnel shell, where the separated from the cartridge case shell went off while being handled, and caused no deaths. The bursting or pushing charge is really quite small, and only meant to open up the shell and scatter the shrapnel balls, much like the bursting charge on a cluster bomb.

    These helmets were meant to protect troops in the open from overhead shrapnel, and troops who were mostly under cover (i.e. in trench but with their head or part of their head exposed), from shell fragments.

    So while interesting, it is purely academic.

    The Great War Youtube channel had a short segment on the French officer Gen. Adrian, the man responsible for the French helmet, and the thousands of lives likely saved by it.

  7. Steve Doc says:

    “This result might stem from the deflector crest along the midline of the helmet (Fig 1a)” The pictures for British and French helmets are reversed. 1b actually shows the Adrian design.

  8. Kirk says:

    Good catch, but the “British helmet” pictured is actually the US copy of it, the M1917 Brodie.

    There were a bunch of fascinatingly different prototypes they were working on, some copied directly out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s armor collection. In the end, the M1917 design won, and I think it was down to the simplicity of manufacture that won the day.

    Lots of stuff about WWI and the early days of arming up for the war look really ludicrous, in hindsight. Not to mention, outright childish. I wish I could remember where the hell I stored that book–There were a bunch of examples of things just like this, where you’re going “What the hell…?”, and now we’re seeing people do research that makes at least some of what they did look sensible and foresightful.

  9. Alistair says:

    Nearly all artillery kill is frag.

    If you’re close enough for primary blast to kill you, then you’re probably massively fragged anyway or suffer a secondary or tertiary blast kill.

    It’s wise to concentrate on frag/ballistic protection and not worry about a bit of extra blast protection.

  10. Alistair says:

    …conventional arty; discounting exotics like thermobarics, of course.

  11. Alistair says:


    Wasn’t that handling error in a lethality trial? Previously the shells had been punching holes in plyboard targets but no one realised that clothed humans were actually a bit tougher…

  12. Alistair says:


    Your officers are career-prioritising risk-averse who know what “unnecessary” deaths will do to their chances.

    They WILL trade a 50% reduction in effectiveness and mission success for a 10% reduction in casualties.

    They are entirely rational.

  13. Kirk says:

    I totally agree with you, Alistair. The problem with the majority of them is that they’ve bought into the system, and have lost sight of what they’re supposed to be doing–Which is win wars.

    I look at Afghanistan more and more as exercises in institutional self-justification. It’s a never-ending self-licking ice cream cone for the careerist officer.

    Which is what most of them are. Careerists, not soldiers.

    What’s the number-one feature of a successful insurgency? Oh, that’s right–An external sponsor who will keep pumping in money and weapons. In Afghanistan, that would be…? Who, precisely? Oh, that’s right–The same assholes we pump billions of dollars into in the form of military aid. Pakistan. Take away the Pakistani support, and the Taliban in Afghanistan would wither away within a few short years, unable to operate without the ISI paymasters that keep the whole thing running. With our money. The money our State Department and Pentagon keep giving them, because…?

    Afghanistan is a never-ending whack-a-mole game that’s going to keep right on going until someone stops putting the quarters into it. Stop the funding, destroy the untouchable refuges in the sponsor country, and the Afghanistan career-building machine stops. Which is why it hasn’t, and why we need to utterly root out the careerist officer class, along with their State Department enablers. None of these assholes have sacrificed their holy careers to go on record by resigning or testifying in front of Congress and the American people. They’d rather kill their troops in a futile conflict that they know they can’t win, than do any of that. Which makes them traitors to their oaths and their men.

    This is exactly what was going on in Vietnam, only that generation of officers and diplomats had the smarts to make the other guys pay for it. Today’s vermin? LOL… We’re paying for it all, handing off billions to Pakistan who rakes in all that military aid, and then turns around to stab us in the back with it by supporting and enabling their proxies, the Taliban.

    This is a reality, and you’ll note that we’ve seen f**k-all for any of our officer class going on record about it. We should have cut Pakistan off about the time we found bin Laden in Abbottabad, but no, we’re gonna keep right on dumping quarters into the career-building machine, pissing away young men’s lives for no purpose.

    The Founders were right to have suspicions of a standing army. What we have before us today is a perfect illustration of why a constitutional republic such as ours does not need, nor should have a standing professional army with a potential for someone to make a career at it. Nor should we have a professional career political class. The moment you institute such things, life-long career military officers and politicians, you wind up with a situation whereby those institutions take on lives of their own, and begin to become positively inimical to the interests of the general population. Look at the State Department or the “Defense” Department of today for case studies–Instead of citizens acting on behalf of other citizens to fulfill necessary functions of a government, what we’ve created are entire classes of self-interested apparatchiks whose sole interest is the perpetuation of their holy careers and the dysfunctional institution that enables those careers.

    Frankly, I think we’d do better with anything else than what we’ve got going now, which is a burning dumpster fire of public monies. Put this crap out to contract, and set it so that the men running our wars don’t get paid unless they win, and they pay a penalty for every soldier they get killed. The incentives in a careerist structure are all wrong for what we need–None of these assholes in the Pentagon or the State Department have any interest whatsoever in winning in Afghanistan, because if they do…? There go all those lovely opportunities for graft and career-building.

    If you want to solve the problem of careerists in government, do away with careers. Nobody should be able to make a living doing nothing but political or government work, because the minute you allow that crap to start, they lose sight of what they are really supposed to be doing, and instead focus on their own self-benefit. You can tolerate that in a sergeant or some guy working on a road crew for the state, but what you cannot tolerate is having that mentality grow up in the management classes.

  14. TRX says:

    “Could Body Armor Have Saved Millions in World War I?”

    Possibly… but sulfanilomide would likely have saved even more.

    Not to mention non-fatal diseases and their effect on troops. In WWI the AEF had 43 deaths from mumps, but 82,000 troops were diagnosed with it, which not only meant their loss as effectives, but more drain on non-combat resources to transport and care for them until they recovered or were sent back home.

  15. Paul from Canada says:


    “Wasn’t that handling error in a lethality trial? Previously the shells had been punching holes in plyboard targets but no one realised that clothed humans were actually a bit tougher…”

    Could be… It was certainly a test of some kind, and it went off while being handled, with someone still downrange and they were barely bruised.

    My take was that the lethality of shrapnel was all from the velocity of the shell itself, and the bursting charge just dispersed the balls, so when propelled by the bursting charge alone, shrapnel balls were propelled at well below lethal velocity. After all, shrapnel certainly killed plenty in combat, and drove the development of the helmet in the first place, so it wasn’t that shrapnel in actual use wasn’t lethal.

    As for the body armour issues, we have a lot of survivor bias going on. When helmets were first issued in WWI, staff officers complained that the number of head wound presenting at field hospitals was going up. they concluded that the helmets were counter-productive, since they gave soldiers a false sense of security, and they were exposing themselves more/getting head wounded more.

    In reality, the increase was caused by soldiers surviving fragment and shrapnel wounds BECAUSE they were wearing helmets, and surviving to get to the hospitals rather than being left dead on the battlefield.

    Similarly, we are seeing similar trends in places like Afghanistan. Helmets and body armour are protecting the head and torso from frag and blast, so we are getting far more traumatic amputations of limb, or limb wounds requiring amputation than previously, because once again, the protective equipment is allowing wounded soldiers to survive what in the past would not be survivable.

    I think the high incidence of brain injury from blast is similar. Some of it may be that we are recognizing it better now, but that we always had it, or that we are getting more of it now because the ballistic protection of our helmets is preventing more severe and lethal head injury, so the incidence of concussive brain injury is going up.

  16. Alistair says:


    Agreed. I had to look over some PPE combat data once for Powers-That-Be and that was pretty much my conclusion. Survivor bias in the data was driving “more” limb injuries, blunt trauma, and TBI.

    The interesting maths was working backwards from the “additional” LIMB injuries to figure out how many TORSO injuries had been prevented, and hence the armour effectiveness.

  17. Kirk says:

    The cynical will point out that there are a lot of unknowable things about the entire passive armor question.

    For example, how many men are wounded because of their armor? How many over-use injuries are there because of it? How many of the enemy get away because the men pursuing them are too tired and too slow to catch them? While the weight of armor may save a lot of your men, how many more are going to be killed because the conflict drags on inconclusively while you have them finger-trapped within the confines of their armor?

    There are other questions, too–What are the psychological effects? Sure, you think you’re an invulnerable myrmidon, all armored up and mighty, but what are the effects in terms of making you more risk-insensitive, encouraging you to do more stupid sh*t under fire because you think you’re invulnerable? Alternatively, what effect accrues from simple physical exhaustion, created by the fact that hauling around all that armor leaves you too tired to think straight or to act effectively?

    Past a certain minimalist point, passive armor is a Chinese finger-trap. The really bad thing about it is that the commanders in a Western military force are not able to make rational decisions on the question simply because public sentiment will not allow that–The casualty-averse politicians and public will not accept that Johnny dying today is better than hypothetical Johnny, Ted, Mike, and Tim dying over the course of a conflict that is extended due to an inability to come to grips with and destroy the enemy.

    One of the things I wonder about in Afghanistan is how much of the ongoing conflict is happening because the troops simply haven’t been able to force the enemy into effective engagements due to our armor-weighted forces being too slow and too tired to pursue them to destruction? There has to be a factor there, psychologically, when Ismail the Taliban watches plodding overburdened American troops fail to keep up during a foot pursuit, or be unable to quickly respond under fire because they’re so heavily laden that they simply can’t do more than watch as the Taliban forces dance around them unburdened by armor or the ten tons of other crap the forces of righteousness have to lug around.

    There are tactical, operational, and strategic costs to up-armoring the troops that are never accounted for in the calculus of command. Were you to suggest that things would be shortened up by “going light”, I dare say that you’d be relieved of command very quickly, these days–Mostly out of a misplaced set of priorities set by the civilian side of it all.

  18. Paul from Canada says:


    As usual, I have to agree.

    Gen. Andrew Leslie, one of our Generals who was a big wheel in ISAF once did an interview, in which he said some rather pertinent and probably inadvisable things about the modern political realities of COIN.

    He basically said that the idea of modern insurgency is to give the western commander a catch 22 he can’t avoid. His example was force protection.

    If he makes minimization of collateral damage/civilian casualties and restrictive ROE his priority, then he is going to suffer more casualties. If he suffers a lot of casualties, the NDP (our far left political party), is going to scream in the house about how our troops are being sacrificed for “US imperialism” and how we should be doing “peacekeeping” instead, and that our troops should be brought home, and he loses.

    If he prioritizes effectiveness and force protection over collateral damage, the NDP will scream about civilian casualties, and demand our troops be brought home, etc….

    Either way, he loses…..

    Our big problem is that the politicians are willing to spend blood and treasure to further mushy ill defined ends, because a small professional military will do whatever is asked of it as a measure of pride and professionalism. Worse, our General corps go along with it because they are fully politicized.

    No that I agree with the idea of putsches and coups, but given the results of Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Rhodesia and Namibia, perhaps it might have been a good lesson for our politicians if Les Paras and 1er R.E.P. had succeeded back in the day.

Leave a Reply