Spiked Helmets Worn for Military Fashion not Function


A Prussian Garde Du Corps officer’s spiked helmet, Model 1867, with double step front and rear “lobster tail” visors, trimmed in nickel silver. The helmet surmounted by a highly detailed representation of a spread-winged eagle in silvered finish with a gilt crown, mounted to the helmet on a cruciform base. Complete with national and state officer’s large size cockades, and tombac chin scales. Worn only by two elite Imperial Cavalry units—the Garde du Corps and the Garde Cuirassier Regiment—this helmet sold at auction for $12,650 in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

The early Imperial German Empire took much pride in fashionable uniforms and headgear for its military, often choosing ornamental gear over more practical pieces. Brass helmets with colorful plumes, exotic bearskin and other exotic furs were made to create a sense of wealth and power. Grenadiers, or “grenade men,” wore high peaked hats to create a false sense of height and strike fear in the hearts of their opponents.

One of the more iconic pieces of German headgear is the “Pickelhaube.” A loose translation from German is pointed cap or hood. The helmet featured a spike at the top that was merely decorative and never intended for stabbing. Most spiked helmets had a black leather base, but there are a few with a metal base. The mounted cavalry, or cuirassiers, typically wore the metal-based helmets.

A Prussian Model 1842 reserve infantry officer’s spiked helmet, estimated value of $3,000-$5,000. Made of black leather with brass trim and spike and a Prussian eagle front plate. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

This 1881 pattern cavalry officer’s dress spiked helmet has a planchet with an eagle and a banner in his beak that reads E. Pluribus Unum. Crossed swords and patriotic shield with German silver 6 surmounted on shield with arrows in left talon and olive twig in right talon. Complete with orange dyed horsehair plume, this helmet sold for $977.50 in 2006. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

The exact story of how this helmet came to be is unknown, but the most widely accepted version begins with a visit made by King Friedrich Wilhelm IV (1840–1858) of Prussia to Russian Czar Nicholas I (1825–1855) in 1842. King Friedrich took notice of a helmet prototype with a spike on top sitting on Czar Nicholas’s desk. When King Friedrich returned, he modified what he had seen and created a spiked helmet for his military. He was able to rapidly produce his spiked helmet two years before the Russians were able to introduce their version.

For the next 70 years, the spiked helmet became part of the standard dress for most German soldiers. During military parades, officers often had elaborate helmets and substituted horsehair plumes for their spikes.

A collector should keep in mind that the older, more detailed helmets are most desirable. This is due in part to their often one-of-a-kind nature and also due to the fact that they were more expensive to produce. The German military has always been known for its thriftiness, and this rang true with the spiked helmets that were produced later. The manufacturers replaced the brass chin scales with leather straps, and the brass fittings on the helmets became white metal. The original helmets were 38 millimeters in height and each successive generation of spiked helmets became smaller in scale.

A Bavarian field artillery officer’s helmet, estimated value of $700-$900. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

A Bavarian non-commissioned officer’s Chevaulegers Regiment No. 1 spiked helmet, with silvered trim, front plate and fluted spike, realized $517.50 in auction in 20080. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

Polished metal spiked helmets command the most money. It is very important to make sure that the helmet has not been reassembled with spare parts, which was a very common practice. This will drastically reduce the value. As fakes and forgeries are becoming more prevalent in the market for militaria, the number of extremely well-done fake spiked helmets is ever increasing. Collectors can avoid getting a fake by doing research and purchasing from a reputable dealer or auction house.

The demise of the Pickelhaube came about during World War I with new developments in artillery and ballistics. The old spiked helmets could not withstand the penetrating power of modern shrapnel and bullets, so the German military began using steel helmets with camouflage as the only decoration. Functional need finally outweighed the desire for a fashionable military.

A Garde Artillery officer’s spiked helmet with brass chin scales, spike and imperial eagle planchet. The helmet came with its original hat case and sold for $3,450 at auction in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., Cincinnati, Ohio)

Dr. Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series “History Detectives” and is a featured appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” He can be reached via email at info@historicamericana.com.

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