U.S. Experimental Helmets (1917-1920)

When Europe mobilized in 1914, at the start of WWI, the closest thing to today’s combat helmet was the German Pickelhaube, a heavily ornamented leather headpiece denoting rank and branch of service. Most soldiers wore nothing but cloth caps, similar to those used during the American Civil War (1861-1865).1 Massive technological advances in weaponry made since the 16th Century changed the nature of combat along with the nature of armor.2

Furthermore Twentieth Century commanders did little to advance tactics beyond those used during the previous centuries. Troops lined up to face one another in open battle and were devastated by machine guns and bombarded by artillery. In the early days of WWI this failure to adapt proved devastating for both sides as hundreds of thousands of troops were killed in single assaults which accomplished little.3 Offensive warfare ceased and the war over yards, waged from trenches began.

In trench warfare the head was a chief point of exposure. Twenty percent of all wounds from the front were to the head and neck. Artillery barrages, hand to hand combat, sniper bullets, debris, and grenades all posed serious problems for the everyday soldier.4 Unfortunately man’s defense of the head, it seemed, had not caught up to its ability to destroy one.

When the United States entered WWI in December of 1916 there was no American combat helmet. Americans at first used the French Adrian and British M-1916, both of which were introduced in 1915.5 The plans for the British M-1916 were given to the American government to be produced in the United States and used by American forces. The greatest benefit of the M-1916 was the ability to produce many of them at a low cost while not compromising the quality of the helmet. Sir Robert Hadfield introduced the method of using 12% manganese steel to further harden the helmet.6 American companies used the plans and produced their own M-1917s. The American M-1917 had miniscule differences from the British version and was basically the same helmet.7

Unfortunately the British M-1916 had problems. A poor center of gravity caused the M-1916 to wobble. The M-1917 required the wearer's constant adjustment while running, walking, or most importantly in the prone position. Much of the head remained exposed as the helmets bobbed back and forth. Soldiers ran across the battlefield with one hand on their helmets. It was determined that the M-1917’s liner was the primary problem. The leather chinstrap was also sensitive to heat and cold and the length fluctuated based on temperature. Even worse the helmets liner and chinstrap were attached to the steel shell by a single screw at helmets peak. If this screw broke the whole helmet fell apart.8

To deal with this problem the United States Army began an experimental helmet program under a 1917 order from General Pershing. The leader of that program was a man named Bashford Dean, the Curator of Armor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dean served as Major of Ordinance in charge of the Armor Unit, Equipment Section, and Engineering Division during WWI. He also served as Chairman of the Committee on Helmets and Body Armor. Dean referred to his time designing experimental helmets from 1917-1918 as his “studies on the armor problem abroad”9 and in 1920 he wrote Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare.

This record of his experience provides an incredible window in the design of a uniquely American combat helmet. America's experimental helmets were a fusion of practicality, history and beauty. Dean was a romantic who believed that helmets could be studied objectively in two separate fields, Utility and Beauty. The helmet's Utility was measured in ballistic value (metal and construction), weight, comfort, and efficiency of production. However he also believed that Beauty had practical and measurable significance in battle. Dean suggested at the time that “no modern armor would have been accepted widely had it not possessed certain aesthetic elements” which helped soldiers to bear it.10 He wrote in his book, “helmets and body armor are usually considered as objects beautiful, rather then useful.”11

Dean's own sentimentality and aesthetic love of armor can be seen in the classically inspired designs and his own fixation on beauty. From 1917 to 1920, Dean and his staff submitted 16 experimental helmets to the United States Army for review. Some of these models were tested on the battlefield while others were never produced using steel materials.12 Although some helmets came close none of the experimental helmets were adopted for permanent use.

In 1936 the Ordinance Board designed a new liner in an effort to create greater stability for the M-1917. Existing M-1917 were refurbished with the new liner and the resulting helmet was renamed the M-1917A1.13 Two steel bands and a steel crown were added to the interior to increase stability. Tension spring hooks were added to the liner to keep it from moving inside the helmet, an innovation introduced in the "Liberty Bell" experimental helmet. This process also involved securing the liner with three rivets instead of a single bolt at the top.14 Furthermore a quick release chinstrap, another product of the experimental helmet project, was added to the M-1917A1 design.15 Orders for the M-1917A1 continued for five years until 1941 when the United States military adopted a new helmet design, the M-1, adapted from the Experimental Model-5A.16

Infantry Helmet 1917 — 1920