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The History of the Development of the U.S. M1 Helmet

by Ken Hatfield (12/12/12).

This early World War II-issue M1 helmet comes with fixed chinstrap bales, front edge welding seam and sewn-on chinstraps. It includes a removable Westinghouse plastic liner with web cloth suspension and a removable leather secondary chinstrap. This type of helmet sells for $100-plus.

There’s an early scene in the recent movie, “The Master,” which features a lingering close-up of Joaquin Phoenix, the film’s troubled Second World War veteran, wearing a M1 helmet. Phoenix plays a Navy gunner’s mate suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Due to the extreme close-up, we can’t tell where he is, although we do know he’s on the water, possibly in a landing craft such as a Higgins Boat, which were manned during amphibious invasions by Navy personnel.

I was impressed by the scene for several reasons, not the least of which was that Hollywood would even know that sailors also wore the M1. The movie also got other minor details right: the helmet had the sewn-on chinstrap loops distinctive to World War II helmets and the outside was painted the blue color adopted for Navy-used M1s.

Although details like that would only be noticed by World War II geeks and, specifically, M1 helmet collectors, to me it shows a filmmaker has done his homework and cares about historical accuracy, something we see all too seldom in movies.

And make no mistake about it: The M1 helmet collector is a geek in every sense of the word, although I mean that in the most favorable terms. The smallest details matter to him, even to the point of obsession.

A First World War U.S. Army M-1917 combat helmet.

THE M1917
The M1 was not the first U.S.-made steel combat helmet, but it was the first U.S. design not based on someone else’s helmet. The First World War had been going on for three bloody years before the United State decided to get involved. When European casualty reports began reaching the U.S., it was discovered, to the surprise of many, that more soldiers were being injured and killed from shrapnel than bullets. Furthermore, medical reports indicated that a protective helmet could prevent many of those injuries from occurring.

In 1917, the American General Staff formed a committee to evaluate British, French and American prototype helmet designs for possible adoption as combat headgear for U.S. soldiers heading overseas. However, it soon became obvious that there wasn’t time for a long drawn-out evaluation and selection process.

The British, eager to get the Yanks in the war, offered almost half a million British Mark I Brodie helmets. That offer, coupled with test results showing the Mark I had better penetration resistance that the French Adrian, prompted the committee to recommend the Brodie for U.S. troops, giving birth to the US Model 1917 steel combat helmet.

The M1917, except for a few subtle differences, is essentially an exact duplicate of the British Mark I. Made of Hadfield manganese steel, it has a shallow bowl and a wide brim with a series of numbers and letters stamped on the underside. Those numbers were used to identify helmet lots in case the steel sheets used in production were found to be defective.

After the steel shells were completed, the US-made helmets were sent to the Ford plant in Philadelphia to be fitted with the helmet’s internal suspension, which like the Mark I, included a felt pad, cotton twine mesh, oil cloth and leather chinstrap. The only real difference in the two helmets was the Mark I usually came with rubber “doughnut” ring under the felt in the crown for extra padding.

Although intended to be a stop-gap measure until a distinctive U.S.-designed helmet was developed, the M1917 would remain the standard U.S. armed forces combat helmet for the next 25 years.

The new post-WWI version was christened the M1917A1.

THE NO. 5A
The M1917 was far from being the perfect combat helmet. Not comfortable to wear, the shallow bowl did not stay balanced when worn by a soldier on the run and it provided minimal protection from projectiles approaching from below or the sides. Experimentation with prototype designs continued after the war and by 1920 the Army had come up with an experimental helmet with the potential to replace the M1917.

Designated the Model No. 5A, it was the first of the true “pot-shaped” helmets and was designed by armorers at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1926, several tests and trials were conducted at Fort Benning, Ga., to compare the No. 5A to the M1917. Those trials determined that the M1917 was still ballistically superior in penetration protection, was lighter in weight, could take more punishment and didn’t get in the way of firing weapons.

In 1932, the Army decided to stop experimenting with pot-shaped helmets. Four years later, orders were issued to modify the M1917 helmets by replacing the old suspension system with a new leather liner to increase its comfort and stability. The new version was christened the M1917A1.

By late 1940, the Second World War had been raging in Europe for more than a year and although America was still on the sidelines, many Army planners anticipated the country’s eventual entry and wanted U.S. soldiers to be the best-equipped in the world. For that to happen, the U.S. needed to come up with a new protective helmet. Again, casualty figures from Europe prompted a reexamination of the pot-shaped design.

During World War I, most shrapnel came from the air, since air bursts were found to be most effective during the static trench warfare period. However, in World War II, projectiles were just as likely to come from below as from above and the World War I designed helmets were not providing adequate protection.

The U.S. Army Infantry Board at Fort Benning was given the job of developing the new helmet. Among the essential features: it would have a “dome-shaped” top to cover the forehead without impairing vision, cover the sides of the head without interfering with weapons usage and cover the back of the head and neck without pushing the helmet forward when in the prone position. It also could not weigh more than the M1917, had to be a shape designed to stay on the head when running and must have a separate removable liner.

THE MODEL TS-3
In January 1941, the U.S. Army Ordnance Department began collecting different types of foreign helmets, then being used in Europe, for ballistic and metallurgical testing. After extensive research is was determined that the M1917 was still the best helmet to protect the top of the head.

For that reason, it was decided to keep the M1917 as the basic prototype for the new helmet. The standard M1917 was modified by removing the brim and metal was added to the sides and back to extend the bowl. A small visor was added to the front. A solid one-piece experimental model was constructed out of Swedish Iron at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and sent to the McCord Radiator and Manufacturing Co. in Detroit to produce sample dies and 200 experimental helmets.

The separate liner was initially developed from a design patented by John T. Riddell, whose Chicago-based company produced a wide range of football equipment, including most of the football helmets used by the NFL. However, since the initial plastic liner was found to be too heavy, the Army opted to use Riddell’s suspension design and look elsewhere for the liner in which to mount it.

Hawley Products Co., which had been making tropical sun helmets, also called pith helmets, since 1933, was tapped to make the experimental liners. Made of a lightweight fiber material, they are easily recognizable from the later plastic liners and are lusted after by M1 collectors.

The new combination of helmet shell and liner was designated the Model TS-3. Testing began at the Watertown Arsenal and continued until late spring 1941. The final report submitted to the Aberdeen Proving Ground concluded that the TS-3 “is ballistically superior to the requirements for a military helmet.” The new helmet was officially designated “Helmet, Steel, M-1.”

The “fixed bales” on early M1 helmets tended to break off and leave the wearer without a way to secure the helmet to his head. That problem was solved by introducing a flexible, hinged chinstrap loop. The fixed bale helmets were manufactured from July 1941 to September 1943 and provide an iron clad way to date a wartime M1.

Another feature of a World War II M1 is the front welding seam, which was discontinued in 1943. After that, all M1 helmets had rear seams.

THE FIRST M1 MODELS
The first M1 helmets—those most prized by collectors—have several distinctive features. Early models have fixed metal chin strap loops, sometimes called “bales,” which the cloth chinstraps were sewn onto. Those “fixed bales” tended to break off and leave the wearer without a way to secure the helmet to his head. That problem was solved by introducing a flexible, hinged chinstrap loop. The fixed bale helmets were manufactured from July 1941 to September 1943 and provide an iron-clad way to date a wartime M1.

Another feature of a World War II M1 is the front welding seam, which also was discontinued in 1943. After that, M1 helmets always had rear seams. Other World War II-only components include sewn-on chinstraps and chinstrap end clips with rounded corners.

Although lightweight and comfortable to wear, the much-coveted first pattern Hawley liners did not stand up to combat wear as well as the later plastic liners. Since it was manufactured only from late 1941 to September 1942, it remains extremely rare and is considerably more valuable than even the most well preserved M1 shell.

Designed much like the pith helmet, early examples have a green painted interior, light rayon Riddell suspension and permanently mounted leather chinstrap. Since the liners, like the shells, were made in only one size, the leather head/sweatband used to fit the liner came in 13 sizes. Unlike later sweatbands that clipped into place, the Hawley model had 12 snap fasteners. The liner also came with a snap-in rayon nape strap.

Some of the early model plastic liners that came into use in 1942 also are extremely collectible. Hood Rubber Co. had a limited production history—April 1942 to early 1944—and produced only 206,000 liners. Stamped on the interior with a silver “HR,” they too are extremely rare and collectible.

The St. Clair Rubber Co. was issued a contract in February 1942 and delivered its first shipment of liners to the Army that April. The first St. Clair liners had a dark OD interior and a yellow stamp with the letters “SC.” The liner suffered from production problems and high rejection rates—many of the rejected liners ended up being sold to toy manufacturers—and St. Clair’s contract was not renewed in 1944. Since only 1.3 million of the liners were produced, they remain fairly rare.

Westinghouse was the largest manufacturer of plastic liners, accounting for more than half of the liners made during World War II—about 23 million. Other manufacturers included Firestone (7.5 million), Capac Manufacturing (3 million) and Mine Safety Appliance Co. (3 million).

Some of the most collectible M1 helmets are not M1s at all. The M2 parachutist helmet is a M1 modified for paratrooper usage. It differs from the standard M1 in that the shell’s web chinstrap is extended and incorporates a male snap fastener, allowing the shell to be attached to the liner to prevent separation during high impact jumps. Other modifications included web A-straps with buckles, which attached to a chamois-lined molded leather chincup. A slightly modified version of the M2 was adopted in January 1945 and designated the M1C parachutist helmet.

M1 helmets with sewn-on chinstraps were manufactured from July 1941 to August 1945.

WATCH FOR REPRODUCTIONS
And finally a word about reproductions. One of the main reasons paratrooper helmets are more collectible is because of their association with U.S. airborne operations such as D-Day and Operation Market Garden, the Allied invasion of Holland. Helmets used by airborne troops were often unit marked with playing card symbols to aid in identifying one another.

Whenever a M1 helmet arrives at Manion’s Auction House with a stenciled heart or diamond, I immediately assume it has been “enhanced” due to how few of those real World War II helmets made it home. Besides obvious clues, such as non-sewn on chinstraps and post-World War II liners, we look at how old the paint stencil appears, whether the shell has been refinished and the material used to make the A-straps.

M1 helmets continued to be made until 1988, when the U.S. adopted the Kevlar PASGT (Personal Armor System Group Troops) helmet. With so many M1s out there, it’s important for the collector to know how to date the helmets and how to tell a valuable liner from one that’s run-of-the-mill.

And as usual, look for provenance with your purchases. Being able to include some history with your M1 will always increase its value, whether it was worn by a D-Day pathfinder or a troubled gunner’s mate on an invasion-bound Higgins Boat.

Ken Hatfield, a former newspaper journalist for more than 20 years with a lifelong interest in military history, is the author of “Heartland Heroes: Remembering WWII,”published by the University of Missouri Press in 2003. He has worked for Manion’s International Auction House for nine years, specializing in American Militaria.

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