American experimental helmets from WWI

The “father of the American steel helmet,” Bashford Dean. (Chris Armold photo)

by Peter Suciu

When the United States entered the First World War on the side of the Allies in 1917, the major powers of Europe had been fighting for nearly three years. In that time, the front lines on the Western Front had become nearly static, with trenches that stretched from Switzerland in the south to the English Channel in the north. This environment had caused the combatant armies to adapt their weapons and equipment. One such piece, the steel helmet, was born out of this necessity.

When the first American units arrived “over there,” they did so with steel helmets! But, as with much of the equipment that the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) used, the doughboys’ “tin hats” were of either French or British manufacture. Even though some units, notably ambulance drivers and the all-black 93rd Division, wore French-produced Model 1915 “Adrian” helmets (or modified M1917 helmets that took on the shape of the Adrian), the Americans ultimately adopted the British MkI steel helmet. Dubbed the “Model 1917,” domestic production began to supply each doughboy with his own, “American-made” helmet. Despite the adoption of the British design and limited use of the French helmets, American military planners were already working on an original American helmet. The results that followed have been christened as “experimental” helmets by collectors today.

THE MAN BEHIND THE HELMETS

While many people were instrumental in developing a series of helmets, one individual stood out, who guided the process in these early years: Dr. Bashford Dean. Thanks to Dr. Dean’s research and his efforts to chronicle the helmets, much is actually known about these American “experimentals.” In fact, much more is known about the American experimental helmets than those of any other nation of the era. In fairness, though, it should be recognized that Dean and the other members of the Ordnance Department were able to design and test their helmets from the relative safety of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. But as with helmet designers in France, England and Germany, there was an urgency to produce the best helmet to protect the soldiers in the field.

Born in 1867, Dean was an American zoologist and armor expert. A graduate of the College of New York City, Dean earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University, where he taught zoology. He was also a noted authority on medieval arms and armor. As a curator at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, he established the arms and armor collection in 1912—the only one of its kind in the United States today. Dean oversaw the rapid growth of the collection. Through his world travels, he acquired many fantastic items, notably the largest collection of Japanese armor outside of Japan. He even acquired many of the “second best” items for himself, which in turn inspired a generation of American collectors of the era, many of whom would later make generous donations to the museum. It should also be noted that when Dr. Dean died in 1928, he left his own collection of more than one thousand pieces to The Met, where the gallery is now named in his honor.

His greatest contribution to the world of helmet collecting actually was his book, Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare. First published just after his death by the Yale University Press, this book has been the premier reference for helmets of the early 20th century. Pugliese Publishing republished this book in 1977, with an added World War II supplement. Either edition is an essential reference for helmet collectors. While currently out of print, the book is now considered as collectible as the helmets themselves!

DEAN GOES TO WAR

In 1917, Dean was appointed to the rank of Major in the U.S. Army Ordnance Department, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art placed its Arms and Armor Department at the disposal of the war effort. During this time, the team, which included other scientists, metallurgists and designers, began to look at the helmets currently in use by England, France, Belgium and even captured helmets from Germany.

The efforts began in earnest just after America’s entry into the war, and continued until shortly after the end of hostilities in Europe. During that time Dean and others designed no less than 16 helmets. Of these, some of the models were single prototypes, while others were produced in small numbers. Some of the test subject models were even field tested in Europe, and while not adopted as official helmets of the US Armed Forces, were indeed “combat helmets” in their own right.

Among the earliest of the experimental helmets were actually heavy modified versions of what already existed. The French Adrian with the “Polack” visor is such a helmet. This helmet featured the basic design of the French Model 1915 Adrian but included a retractable visor. It was similar, and occasionally confused with the Franco-American helmet that incorporated the Dunand visor system. This helmet featured a basic bowl design—a common theme of Dean’s designs—along with a visor to shield the wearer’s face.

Based on the helmets of 15th century Greece and Italy, the Model 2 saw limited field-testing during the First World War, but it was deemed to be too similar to the German Model 1916 helmet. (Author’s collection)

THE EXPERIMENTALS

For collectors, the numbering system of experimental helmets essentially begins with the Model 2. Ironically missing, at least in Dean’s own book, as well as various other books on the subject, including Chris Armold’s excellent overview of American helmets, Steel Pots: The History of America’s Steel Combat Helmet, is any mention of a Model 1. It can be assumed that perhaps the Model 1917 was considered the “first,” or possibly the most original idea never made it off the drawing board.

Designed in June 1917, the Model 2 aimed to protect more completely the sides and back of the head. Designers based the Model 2 on the “standard” helmets of classical Greece and Italy in the 15th Century. Approximately 2,000 Model 2 helmets were produced by Ford Motor Company of Detroit, Michigan. The experimental helmet saw limited field-testing during WWI. The helmet was comfortable to wear and provided satisfactory ballistic results, but it was deemed to be too similar to the German Model 1916 helmet and eventually was discarded.

As with the Model 1, Model 3 is not mentioned in Dean’s book. However, there are several one-of-a-kind experimental helmets shown in photographs (which can be seen in Armold’s books), and it is possible one of these may have been the elusive Model 3. However, as no information has come to light on either those photographed helmets, or the Model 3, this helmet seems lost to the ages.

The Model 4 was actually produced in small numbers by armorer Daniel Tachaux of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Tachaux had also been one of the original designers of the Model 2 and had worked closely with Dean throughout WWI. The Model 4 took the basic shape of the British Mk1/American Model 1917 but featured a deeper bowl that sat lower on the helmet. The look was reminiscent of a medieval men-at-arms helmet. The only surviving example is at the US Army Ordnance Museum.

The Model 5 was also deemed to be too similar to the German Model 1916 helmet, but this design was reconsidered in the late 1930s as the Model 5A, which was rejected in favor of a modified version of the Model 1917. (Author’s collection)

With the Model 5, the team returned to the basic deep bowl features of the Model 2, with the ease in production of the British MkI. Its dome protected the wearer’s head while not impairing the vision. It incorporated a three-pad liner system with a canvas chinstrap, a feature first adopted in the Model 2 (and, no doubt, borrowed from the German Model 1916). The firm of Hale and Kilburn produced about 2,000 Model 5 experimental helmets. Unlike the Model 2 or Model 8, this helmet design actually saw limited testing in the trenches in France at the end of WWI. Like its predecessor, though, it was deemed, to look too much like the German M16 helmet and thus was not adopted by the U.S. Army.
Tachaux also devised the next helmet on the drawing board, the Model 6. It featured the novel concept of tilting forward—in the up position, it was a basic helmet with a long visor. When the visor was lowered, it served as a face mask. The Model 6 was considered unbalanced and awkward to wear. When the visor was worn in down position, there was virtually no protection to the back of the head. It was only produced as a concept, and thus no ballistic testing was ever done. It was likely a one-of-a-kind prototype. Today, the only known example survives at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum.

While rejected by the U.S. military, the Swiss apparently liked what they saw with the Model 5. A side-by-side comparison of the Model 5 with the Swiss Model 1918 shows remarkable similarities. Whether this was by design or coincidence is not known. (Author’s collection)

There are no surviving records to indicate whether the unique Model 7 ever actually saw field-testing, though examples do exist at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum and the Imperial War Museum in London. Also known as the “sentinel’s helmet,” the Model 7 could also be likened to that of a knight in shining armor.

According to Dean’s writings, Model 7s were sent to France. Made by W.H. Mullins Company of Salem, Ohio, the Model 7 was produced in three different weights—including 11, 15 and 18 pounds! The helmet was a round bowl that protected the top of the helmet while two flaps closed in on the sides. Testers claimed it was heavy and uncomfortable to wear and limited the field of vision. This was not the only full-head helmet. The one-of-a-kind prototype Model 9 revisited this design, but little else is known.

The most striking of the American experimental helmets to be produced in large numbers, the Model 8 featured a visor that offered almost complete protection to the wear’s face. About 1,300 of these helmets were produced, though none received combat field-testing during WWI. (Author’s collection)

The Model 7 may have influenced the design of the Model 8, which featured the basic shape of the Model 5 but with a visor to almost completely protect the wearer’s face. Ford Motor Company began production of the Model 8 in November 1918, completing about 1,300 helmets. It featured a three-pad liner system similar to the one found in the Model 2. The benefits of this helmet were that with the visor down it does protect the face almost entirely, while the slits would provide reasonable field of view. Arriving just as the Armistice was signed, the Model 8 never saw combat service in France.

The idea of a full-bowl helmet was revisited with the Model 10 and produced in very limited numbers in the summer of 1918. According to Dean, some examples were sent to France for further testing, but it is also unknown whether these were actually used in combat. The only known surviving specimen is at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum.

There were other efforts to produce helmets, but these were not strictly combat helmets for infantry use. While little is known about the Model 11 or Model 12—including whether or not they existed at all beyond the drawing board—the Model 13 was designed as the first prototype tanker helmet. The Model 14 and Model 15 were designed as flight helmets. These were not the last of the American experimental helmets, but rather the beginnings of specialized helmet designs that would continue for many years.

The only experimental helmet to actually be accepted by the U.S. military was the so-called “Liberty Bell,” the helmet was so despised by the troops that it was withdrawn from service. At least three different liner types were utilized with the Liberty Bell. (Author’s collection)

LIBERTY BELL: FIRST AMERICAN HELMET

One helmet that doesn’t seem to have a number was simply called the Liberty Bell. It has been long believed that the name originated because of the helmet’s unique shape, which does look a bit like an off-center bell. However, according to a Stars and Stripes article from November 1918, some models of this design were stamped with an impression of the Liberty Bell on the front. At this point, no collector has come forward with such an example. Chris Armold postulates in his second book on the subject, Painted Steel: Steel Pots Volume II, “Possibly the author of the Stars and Strips article was shown a demonstration model with an embossed Liberty Bell placed on the front… or he was participating in a bit of journalistic creativity.”

Regardless, what is known is that the helmet was designed by Major James E. McNary and submitted to the American Helmet Committee for consideration as a replacement for the M1917 helmet. It was initially accepted but was disliked by the troops, who compared it to a dome-like hat of a Chinese fisherman. The helmet was officially abandoned as a replacement helmet in 1920. Interestingly, the basic shape of the helmet has been compared to the British MkIII “Turtle Shell” design, which was adopted nearly 25 years later!

Several different liner types and chinstraps were used with the Liberty Bell, including a three-pad system similar to the German Model 1916, a liner that was basically a hold over from the Model 1917 and the final version consisting of an oil cloth donut-type liner supported with four springs that acted as shock absorbers.

The only experimental helmet to actually be accepted by the U.S. military was the so-called “Liberty Bell,” the helmet was so despised by the troops that it was withdrawn from service. At least three different liner types were utilized with the Liberty Bell. (Author’s collection)

And while the Liberty Bell was disliked by the troops, it has—as with the other experimental models—become highly sought after by collectors today. Far less common than German WWII helmets, collectors practically ignored the American experimental helmets until recently, when all American WWI and WWII items rose in price. Experimental helmets have jumped drastically in price in the last few years, and helmets that once were available for only a few hundred dollars, now fetch several thousand. The helmets themselves haven’t been faked (yet). As these were often field tested, most are in well-used condition, so trying to obtain a mint example can be difficult if not impossible, especially as only a few thousand of these helmets were produced.

Ironically, for both the soldier at the time and the collector today, the best efforts to design a better helmet were unsuccessful. As a result the generally inferior Model 1917 remained in service with only one upgrade (as the Model 1917A1 in the late 1930s) until the arrival of the M1 helmet in 1940. And while none of these would-be helmets went on to be Dean’s final legacy, his designs and understanding of armor, as well as those of Tachaux and others, did help later designers craft better headgear to protect our troops in combat. And for that soldiers (and collectors) can be eternally grateful.

 

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