Saturday 20 April 2019

From the Pickelhaube to the Stahlhelm

Many years after the World Wars, the infantry helmet has become a symbol of war. A descendant of bronze and iron helmets used by legionnaires, gladiators, knights, and other warriors of the past, the steel helmet is one of the few elements of a soldier's equipment that hasn't changed its initial function in our days, despite significant technological progress. The most memorable such helmet of the first half of the 20th century was the Stahlhelm (steel helmet). Its aggressive and predatory form is easily recognizeable: a combination of a cylindrical portion, protecting the head, a cone-shaped portion protecting the back, neck, and ears from shrapnel raining from above, and a protruding visor. The Wehrmacht soldier's visage with a stark shadow cast by the helmet's visor was a staple of propaganda. What is the history of this helmet?

Predecessors of the steel helm

The issue of protecting the soldier's head was a new problem to solve for all belligerents of WWI. Machinegun and artillery fire mowed down soldiers by the hundred and thousand in massed infantry and cavalry attacks, but this was the harsh reality that everyone was used to. However, the losses taken during positional warfare, from shrapnel and splinters, forces commanders to order their soldiers to wear improvised protection on their head that had at least some kind of effect.

A Pickelhaube without a cover and with a fabric cover.

The Pickelhelm or Pickelhaube partially solved this problem for the German army. However, this helmet, designed in the middle of the previous century, did not meet the standards of the time. Leather was too soft to protect from splinters and rocks, and the tall point and shiny metal revealed the soldier's location on the battlefield. Fabric covers were introduced in an attempt to solve this.

The practicality of the Pickelhaube was questionable. The helmet was uncomfortable to wear, and the use of the point in hand to hand combat was an exception rather than the rule. Unlike bayonets, knives, and entrenching tools, no documented evidence exists that this was ever done.

Attempts to find cheaper replacements for brass and leather were made before the war and during. Helmets were made from steel and tin, and the dome was made from wool, and later from thin tin, which did not improve protection.

Pickelhaube made from leather (left), felt (middle) and tin (right).

It was obvious that a new, more practical helmet was needed. The first organized attempt to replace the Pickelhaube with something more useful in trench warfare was the improvised helmet made by the troops of General Hans von Gaede in artillery workshops.

This was not a helmet in the sense we know it today. The headgear was made of a quarter-sphere of 5-7 mm thick metal, and covered the front of the head and the nose, with cutouts for the eyes.

A sample built in ordnance workshops.

This design was sewn onto a leather backing with a shock absorbing cloth layer and was held on the head by a strap that locked in the back with a clasp. The weight of this device was about two kilograms. The "von Gaede helmet" did not see much use. Only about 1500 were built.

The model 1916 steel helmet

A new uniform steel helmet was accepted into production in 1916 under the index M16 or M1916. It was supplied to Germany's allies in WWI as well, chiefly Austria-Hungary, and later made its way to other countries, including Turkey and Finland, alongside other types of helmets.

A model 1916 steel helmet.

The M16 helmet was designed in 1915 after investigating typical wounds of the head and their causes. Professor Friedrich Schwerd (responsible for the technical component) and military doctor Professor August Bier worked on this helmet in the Hannover Polytechnic School, known today as the Leibniz Universität Hannover. 

Schwed and Bier developed a helmet that later became known throughout the world. Today, it is firmly identified as a symbol of Germany and the wars it fought in the 20th century. The M16 was made from hardened silicon-manganese-nickel-carbon steel and hot-stamped in six standard sizes (60, 62, 64, 68, and 70).

The helmet was heavier than the French Adrian helmet made from soft carbon steel or the famous British "washbowl" Mk.I Brodie helmet made from hardened manganese Hadfield steel. However, it offered better protection of the head, face, and neck. Like all helmets of the era, the M16 could not protect from a direct hit by a bullet, but only from splinters, dirt, and rocks, which rained from above, which caused up to 80% of all head wounds in trench warfare. Over 7 million units were built before the end of WWI,

The French Casque Adrian and British Mk.I.

One distinctive element of the M16 is the presence of "horns" on the sides with ventilation openings. Their main purpose was to mount the Stirnpanzer additional armour plate. The plate attached to the horns by means of openings cut into it and was affixed by a leather strap that closed on the back of the helmet.

The plate was made from 5 mm thick steel and weighed 2-3.5 kg, which made it impossible to wear constantly. The additional armour was used by sentries and machinegun crews. Soldiers didn't like the extra armour. There was a rumour that it could protect you from bullets, but your neck would break on impact.

Additional armour on an M16 helmet.

All Stirnpanzer were made in the same size, which meant that differently sized helmets needed different horns for it to fit. The exact amount of Stirnpanzer plates made is not known, but presumably tens of thousands were produced. This armour was not used after WWI, but the horns remained.

The M16 was held on the head by means of a chin strap that could be adjusted with two sliding buckles. The chin strap attached to lugs near the ears.

The attachment point of the chin strap.

The helmet liner was made of leather with cloth pads filled with horse hair. A thick strip of leather had three of these pads sewn to it, which were held together on top by a leather lace. Three large clasps were used to hold the helmet liner, one in the rear and two at the temples.

Austrian M16 helmet

After seeing the effectiveness of the German design, the Austro-Hungarian army first ordered half a million helmets in Germany, then purchased a production license in November of 1917.

An Austrian M16 helmet (left) and a German one (right).

The Austrian helmet had a number of differences. It was produced in fewer sizes (62, 64, 66, 68). D-shaped clasps were used for attaching the chin strap. The rivet that held this clasp was placed a lot higher than on the German variant. The chin strap was made from cloth with metallic inserts for the flap of the single clasp. The helmet liner and its attachment was similar to the German helmet, but a metal rim was used to hold the pads.

After the Anschluss in 1938, this type of helmet was also used by the Wehrmacht.

M1917 and M1918 helmets

The model 1917 helmet (M1917, M17) differed from the M16 only in the attachment of the helmet liner. This modification was introduced in the spring of 1917 and consisted of a metal rim instead of a leather one. Other elements of the design remained the same.

The inside of the M1916 helmet (left) and M1917 (left).

The next modification removed the attachments for the chin strap from the helmet itself, removing the need to have a rivet for it. No further changes to the metal helmet were made. D-shaped clasps attached to the helmet liner rim were used, similar to the ones used by the Austrian variant.

The chin strap also changed. A clasp with a prong was used instead of a sliding clasp. Openings were cut in the strap for this purpose. This design was easier to produce, longer lasting, and offered a more secure fit. This helmet was called model 1918, M1918, or M18.

Other variants

There was also a variant of the M18 helmet that did not have a special name, but was called "cavalry helmet", "telephone helmet", "artillery helmet" or "radio helmet". 

This photo shows the standard M18 and its "cavalry" variant.

A cutout was introduced opposite of the ears to make hearing easier. This helmet was developed and tested in August of 1918. The cause for this was complaints about not being able to hear in the helmet that came from the front. Only a small amount of these helmets was built, all in the 64th size, despite plans for large scale production.

Like all other types, these helmets were used by the Wehrmacht until the end of WWII.

The Austrian  Berndorfer Metal-Warenfabrik produced a type of helmet often known as the Berndorfer, which was called model 16 in documents. This helmet had a number of differences from the German type, consisting of different placement of the liner rim and absence of ventilation openings. Later, another variant, called M17, was introduced, with a new method of attaching the front armour plate. These models are often called Hungarian, but they were used by all Austro-Hungarian forces.

Austro-Hungarian "Berndorfer".

The Stahlhelm left its mark in the USSR as well. The RKKA realized that its soldiers need their own steel helmet in the late 1920s. French Adrian helmets and helmets made in 1916-1917 were in short supply, plus their shape was deemed suboptimal. Work on creating a domestic design began, including study of foreign samples. Helmets were bought and tested in order to discover the best shape and composition of steel.

On June 28th, 1931, after visits of the Stahlwerk Röchling-Buderus factory management (specializing in helmets and steel for them) to the USSR, an offer was made to set up a helmet production line. Help from specialists and training for the factory workers were offered.

An experimental helmet designed by Military Intendant 1st Class A.A. Schwartz, one of the Soviet variations of the German Stahlhelm design, without ventilation openings and with an elongated visor.

A deeper discussion revealed two facts. Soviet requirement for helmets were 70-80% higher than those of the Germans, and experimental helmets were of much lower quality than Stahlwerk Röchling-Buderus helmets. Blueprints and an exact composition of the steel were requested from the Germans. In the end, the cooperation fell through. German helmets were tested in the USSR, and a similar helmet was built, but a domestic design was deemed superior.


  1. Sounds like a great reason for a shoot off. The problem is ,can we afford to lose enough old helmets to get proper results. Plus I was fascinated about the German helmet with a extra front shield attached. Perhaps if one was built with a pointy front similar to the JS-3's front . And for historical purposes I'm a little curious why no one ever built steel shoulder pads for soldiers manning the trench line.

    1. They didn't exactly stop at mere shoulder pieces:

    2. Infantry gear is really, really heavy. Infantrymen are pretty much always exhausted. Put the two together.....

    3. Unknown Agreed that this armor would not be practical for regular infantry operations. But men manning trenches are not required to run around. For offensive operations they would leave the armor behind.

    4. Trench raiders and assault teams also used it (and the other armours of the time) IIRC, but then they also went without a lot of the usual kit. But yeah for guys whose main job was to man a machinegun or keep an eye on the No Man's Land without getting snipered the encumbrance wasn't a particular issue.

  2. I really appreciate articles like this one. It's so tiring to hear the same old comments under videos and articles about the Stahlhelm that are so clearly written by drooling nincompoops who can't stop ejaculating over a helmet design that is so iconic yet was already sub-optimal by WWII. A straightforward analytical article is just what everyone needs.

    1. I do remember the weight and hearing issues - the flared rim apparently creates a sort of echo chamber on the ears - being fairly common complaints in Finnish veterans' memoirs...

  3. IIRC, the Stahlhelm required a longer metal formation process that meant it was weaker upon production than the Brodie pattern helmet. George Coppard and friends in "A Machine Gun To Cambrai" diverted themselves by using pickaxes to knock holes in captured Stahlhelms.

    1. Yes, the Stahlhelms tested in the USSR proved vastly unsatisfactory, although the type was not specified.

  4. So this was intended as a weapon?
    I am suprised. They once taught me that the purpose of the spike was to deflect incomming swords etc from above away from the head.

    It doesn't make any sense to use it as a weapon. Some animals do this but they have long enough spikes, and oftem can't claw in a forward direction easily. But most importantly, they usually can see forward while they attack like this.

    1. No idea where the notion that the pickelhaube was intended to be used as a weapons tems from ...

    2. Not as in headbutting, that'd be ridiculous; as in "grasp with both hands and wallop the other chap with it" - IIRC WW2 British Commandos received actual training in using the narrow rim of their helmets for similar force-focusing purposes.

      P sure the actual purpose of the Pickelhaube was just to look swag, though. That was generally the thing with period military headgear and "y-you could also hit the other guy with it in a pinch" sounds more like an ex post facto rationalisation attempt than anything.

      IIRC the thing was also rather top-heavy and duly had an annoying tendency to tilt every which way on the head...

    3. Ah ok now i see. It does make a bit more sense this way lol

    4. Well the purpose of the tip was to deflect blow with sabres (and similar weapons) slightly to the side, that would otherwise have landed squarely on the flat part of the helmet - with unwelcome conseqences for the user of said helmet.
      Thats why the tip is rather short and curved sideways instead being long and straight

  5. Nice article, thanks.

    I read that the point on the pickelhaube and other european headgear is a very old leftover form imitation of Mongol headgear. So it was decorative only.

    1. Decorative definitely, but I'm pretty sure that genealogy is wrong. Far as I understand it was more or less a "degenerate" imitation of the zischägge (aka "lobster-tailed pot") cavalry helmets popular in the Early Modern period (Austrians were still using those around 1780), themselves copied from the Turko-Persian cicak type which remained popular across South Asia until the 1800s.
      This is fairly obvious in the all-metal cuirassier version that retained the laminate "lobstertail" neck-guard and was commonly used as part of formal dress by the high muckety-mucks of Prussia and later the Empire.

      Can't recall out of hand what Mongol types looked like but in any case that was dusty ancient history by this time and AFAIK the diverse successor khanates mostly used quite different "mail-and-plates" designs that were once pretty popular in Russia and Poland-Lithuania too.