The design of the Stahlhelm was carried out by Dr. Friedrich Schwerd of the Technical Institute of Hanover…
Stahlhelm (plural, Stahlhelme) is German for „steel helmet”. The Imperial German Army began to replace the traditional boiled-leather Pickelhaube (spiked combat helmet) with the Stahlhelm during the First World War in 1916. The term Stahlhelm refers both to a generic steel helmet, and more specifically to the distinctive (and symbolic) German design.
The Stahlhelm, with its distinctive „coal scuttle” shape, was an instantly recognizable icon for military imagery and became a common element of military propaganda on both sides, just like the Pickelhaube before it.
Its name was also used by the Stahlhelm, a paramilitary nationalist organization established at the end of 1918.
At the beginning of World War I, none of the combatants were issued with any form of protection for the head other than cloth and leather caps. As the war entered the trench warfare phase, the number of casualties on all sides suffering from severe head wounds (more often caused by shrapnel than by gunfire) increased dramatically. The French were the first to see a real need for more effective protection—in late 1915 they began to issue Adrian helmets to their troops. The British and Commonwealth troops followed with the Brodie helmet, which was also later worn by US forces, and the Germans with the Stahlhelm.
The design of the Stahlhelm was carried out by Dr. Friedrich Schwerd of the Technical Institute of Hanover. In early 1915, Schwerd had carried out a study of head wounds suffered during trench warfare and submitted a recommendation for steel helmets, shortly after which he was ordered to Berlin. Schwerd then undertook the task of designing and producing a suitable helmet.
After lengthy development work, which included testing a selection of German and Allied headgear, the first Stahlhelms were tested in November 1915 at the Kummersdorf Proving Ground and then trialled by the 1st Assault Battalion. Thirty thousand examples were ordered, but it was not approved for general issue until New Year 1916, hence it is most usually referred to as the „Model 1916”. In February 1916 it was distributed to troops at Verdun, following which the incidence of serious head injuries fell dramatically.
The model for the Stahlhelm’s design is said to be the 15th century sallet, which was worn by both knights and commoners, and which provided good protection for the head and neck.
In contrast to the Hadfield steel used in the British Brodie helmet, the Germans used a harder martensitic silicon/nickel steel. As a result, and also due to the helmet’s form, the Stahlhelm had to be formed in heated dies at a greater unit cost than the British helmet, which could be formed in one piece.
The different Stahlhelm designs are named for their year of introduction. For example, the Modell 1942 which was introduced in 1942 is commonly known as M1942 or simply M42. Here, they are referred to by their M19XX names.
M1916 and M1917…
The Stahlhelm was introduced into regular service during the Verdun campaign in early 1916.
The M1916 design had side-mounted horn-like ventilator lugs which were intended to be support for an additional steel brow plate or Stirnpanzer, which only ever saw limited use by snipers and trench raiding parties, as it was too heavy for general use.
The shell came in different sizes, from 60 to 68, with some size 70s reported. The suspension, or liner, consisted of a headband with three segmented leather pouches, each holding padding materials, and leather or fabric cords could be adjusted to provide a comfortable fit. The one-piece leather chin strap was attached to the shell by M1891 chinstrap lugs, the same kind used in the Pickelhaube helmet.
The M1916 design provided excellent protection: Reserve Lieutenant Walter Schulze of 8th Company Reserve Infantry Regiment 76 described his combat introduction to the helmet on the Somme, 29 July 1916:
„… suddenly, with a great clanging thud, I was hit on the forehead and knocked flying onto the floor of the trench… a shrapnel bullet had hit my helmet with great violence, without piercing it, but sufficiently hard to dent it. If I had, as had been usual up until a few days previously, been wearing a cap, then the Regiment would have had one more man killed.”
But the helmet was not without its flaws. The ventilator horns often let cold air in during the winter, requiring the wearer to block the vents with mud or fabric. The large, flared skirt tended to make it difficult for soldiers to hear, distorting surrounding sounds and creating an echo when the wearer spoke.
Originally painted Feldgrau (field grey), the Stahlhelm was often camouflaged by troops in the field using mud, foliage, cloth covers, and paint. Official issue cloth covers in white and grey appeared in late 1916 and early 1917. Camouflage paint was not formally introduced until July 1918, when German Army Order II, No 91 366, signed by General Erich Ludendorff on 7 July 1918, outlined official standards for helmet camouflage. The order stipulated that helmets should be painted in several colors, separated by a finger-wide black line. The colors should be relevant to the season, such as using green, brown and ochre in summer.
After the effectiveness of the M1916 design was validated during the 1916 campaigns, incremental improvements were subsequently made. The M1917 version saw improvements to the liner, but was otherwise identical to the original design.
Extensive redesigns were made for the M1918 model. A new two-piece chin strap was introduced, and was attached directly to the helmet liner rather than the shell. Certain examples of the M1918 had cutouts in the rim along the sides of the helmet. It has incorrectly been said that these cutouts were to accommodate using headphones while wearing the helmet. These cutouts were actually done to improve hearing and to reduce echo created by the large, flared skirt.
The M1918 Stahlhelm can be distinguished from the M1916, as the M1918 shell lacks the chinstrap rivet on the lower side of the helmet skirt found on earlier models.
Central Power variants…
Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire used, or had commissioned, variations of the Stahlhelm design. The Austrians’ M1917 helmet was similar to the German M1916, but had a cloth webbing chinstrap and had the chinstrap rivet located higher up on the steel shell. The Hungarians produced their own M1917 version that was similar to the Austrian design, but the chinstrap rivet was smaller in size and located even higher up than the Austrian version. The Austro-Hungarian helmets were manufactured by Krupp Berndorfer Metallwarenfabriken, and were brown in color.
Germany delivered 5,400 visorless versions of the M1918 helmet for Turkey. The missing front visor was thought by the Germans to be for religious reasons, and it was claimed that it was to allow Turkish soldiers to touch their foreheads to the ground during prayer, without removing their helmets. However, this story has been disputed. The Turks rejected any more than the 5,400 delivered and an unknown number from the overrun were issued to German armed forces and were used by German Freikorps units after the war.
In 1932 the Army High Command ordered the testing of a new prototype helmet intended to replace the older models. It was made entirely from a composite plastic material called „Vulkanfiber”. The Model 1933 Vulkanfiber helmet kept the basic form of previous helmets but was much lighter. It was put into limited production following favourable field tests in early 1933 and small numbers were issued to Reichswehr infantry, artillery and communications units. It was removed from service following the introduction of the M1935 helmet and most of the remaining stock were reissued to civil organizations such as fire brigades and police forces. Some examples were also retained for parade use by senior officers, who were not generally issued with the Stahlhelm.
In 1934 tests began on an improved Stahlhelm, whose design was a development of the World War I models. The Eisenhüttenwerke company of Thale carried out prototype design and testing, with Dr. Friedrich Schwerd once again taking a hand.
The new helmet was pressed from sheets of molybdenum steel in several stages. The size of the flared visor and skirt was reduced, and the large projecting lugs for the obsolete armour shield were eliminated. The ventilator holes were retained, but were set in smaller hollow rivets mounted to the helmet’s shell. The edges of the shell were rolled over, creating a smooth edge along the helmet. Finally, a completely new leather suspension, or liner, was incorporated that greatly improved the helmet’s safety, adjustability, and comfort for each wearer. These improvements made the new M1935 helmet lighter, more compact, and more comfortable to wear than the previous designs.
The Army’s Supreme Command officially accepted the new helmet on June 25 1935 and it was intended to replace all other helmets in service.
Over 1 million M1935 helmets were manufactured in the first two years after its introduction, and millions more were produced until 1940 when the basic design and production methods were changed.
The M1935 design was slightly modified in 1940 to simplify its construction, the manufacturing process now incorporating more automated stamping methods. The principal change was to stamp the ventilator hole mounts directly onto the shell, rather than utilizing separate fittings. In other respects, the M1940 helmet was identical to the M1935.
A variant of the M1935 helmet with a shell lacking the projecting visor and deep, flared rim was issued to Fallschirmjäger (German paratrooper) units. It was so designed in order to lessen the risk of head injury on landing after a parachute jump; also to reduce the significant wind resistance and resulting neck trauma. Early Fallschirmjäger helmets were manufactured from existing M1935 helmets by removing the undesirable projections, which were omitted when the new design entered full production. The modified shell also incorporated a completely different and more substantial liner and chinstrap design that provided far more protection for German airborne troops.
The M1942 design was a result of wartime demands. The rolled edge on the shell was eliminated, creating an unfinished edge along the rim. This edge slightly flared out, along the base of the skirt. The elimination of the rolled edge expedited the manufacturing process and reduced the amount of metal used in each helmet. Shell paint colors towards the end of the war typically ran to matte gray-green, and the decals were gradually eliminated to speed up production and reduce the helmet’s combat visibility. Greater manufacturing flaws were also observed in M42 helmets made late in the war.
A simpler variant, designed in 1944 by the Army Ordnance Office, was also stamped out of one piece of metal but with sloped sides. Similar in appearance to the British 1944 Type Mk III helmet. Allegedly personally rejected by Hitler as being too foreign.
There have been reports of a variant manufactured in the last months of the war. The M1945 was reported to have been similar to the M1942 design, but did away completely with the ventilator. These helmets are reported to be extremely rare. Many collectors and historians are of the opinion that the M1945 helmet is more likely to be just a regular M1942 helmet that lacked the vents simply because of machine malfunctions in the factory.
A variant of the M1944 with a modified suspension system, developed further into the M1956.
The East German M-56 helmet was originally designed in 1942 as a replacement for the M1935/M1940 model Stahlhelms. The design was never progressed and was unused until the requirement for a new German helmet for the Volkspolizei and the National People’s Army arose, it being realized that the reintroduction of the Stahlhelm would not have been tolerated by the Soviet Union. It came in three basic versions, Mod 1 or I/56, Mod 2 or I/57 and Mod 3 or I/71, and was widely sold (or given) to Third World armies.
Decals & insignia…
After Stahlhelm shells were painted, the colours of which varied by organization, small identification or insignia decals usually were affixed to one or both sides of the helmet. Almost every military, naval, and political organization had its own distinctive insignia, which was applied as decals to the sides of helmets.  The right side of early M35 helmets bore the tricolored shield of black, white, and red stripes, the traditional national colors of Imperial Germany (cf. the black, red, and gold of today’s Germany, harking back to the 1848 Revolt). The left side of the shell often received decal insignia denoting the branch of the armed forces, or Wehrmacht, or an organization within the Nazi Party.
The Wehrmacht consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy), and the Luftwaffe (air force). While not technically part of the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS („Armed-SS”) tactically operated as such and was considered part of Germany’s armed forces during the war. The same was true of some Sturmabteilung (SA) units, along with other subsidiary organizations, which functioned as part of the armed forces particularly towards the end of the war. Wehrmacht branches typically displayed distinctive emblems in the form of decals on their helmets. The Heer, or army, displayed a black shield bearing the frontal view of a silver-colored German eagle holding a swastika in its talons (known as the Reichsadler), while the navy used the same eagle emblem in gold. Luftwaffe decals displayed the side view of an eagle in flight, also holding a swastika. The SS was both a paramilitary and a political organization, and its black runic initials on a silver-colored shield (normally applied to the right side of the shell) looked like twin lightning bolts. Other military, political, and civil or defense organizations used similar decal insignia to distinguish their helmets. Such visible identification devices were gradually abandoned as the war progressed, however, so that by war’s end most Wehrmacht helmet insignia had been eliminated to reduce the wearer’s visibility in combat.
Stahlhelm use in other countries…
Germany exported versions of the M1935 helmet to various countries. Versions of the M1935 Stahlhelm were sent to Nationalist China in 1935 and 1936. Spain also received shipments of the helmet. During the inter-war years several military missions were sent to South America under the command of Hans Kundt and the Bolivian army used to wear the helmet up until recently. The exported M1935 helmets were similar to the German issue, except for a different liner. Hungary produced own 35M helmet, it was a modified German M1935 helmet. Hungary used a variation of the M1942 helmet, that had a metal belt loop on the back of the shell. Some countries manufactured their own helmets using the M1935 design, and this basic design was in use in various nations as late as the 1970s.
After the end of World War I Poland seized large quantities of M1918 helmets. Most of those were later sold to various countries, including Spain. However, at the end of the 1930s it was discovered that the standard Polish wz. 31 helmet was unsuitable for tank troops and motorized units; while offering decent protection, it was too large and heavy. As a stop-gap measure before a new helmet was developed, the General Staff decided to issue M1918 helmets to the 10th Motorized Cavalry Brigade, which used them during the Polish Defensive War.
During the inter-war years, the Republic of Ireland equipped their Army with a British-made copy of the M1918 helmet manufactured by Vickers, and a German-type tunic. At the outbreak of World War Two, Ireland remained neutral, but in 1940 accepted the British offer to replace the German-style uniforms with British-style battle dress and Brodie pattern helmets.
Other countries that used Stahlhelm-type helmets included…
- Brazil: Firefighters Corps of Paraná State
- Republic of Ireland: Irish Army post World War I to 1940
- Republic of China: M1935 Republic of China Army 1935–1950s?
Switzerland used a helmet that was roughly similar to the M1916, but had a shallower, more rounded crown and skirt.
After the Second World War, West Germany abandoned the distinctive Stahlhelm, which had become a symbol of German military aggression, for a variant of the more „harmless-looking” United States Army „GI pot” helmet. The Bundesgrenzschutz border guards and some West German police units kept the Stahlhelm in their inventories, though it was seldom worn (although police units can be seen wearing them during footage of the Black September hostage crisis in 1972), and the Fallschirmjäger variant was used for some time by the GSG 9. German firefighters today still use Stahlhelm-shaped helmets in a fluorescent color. In the 1990s, a Kevlar helmet was adopted by the Army which sported the distinct form once more.
East Germany’s M-56 helmet was modelled on an unused 1942 German design with a more conical shape. The Chilean Army still uses the Stahlhelm design for ceremonial purposes. There are also some Japanese bicycle helmets (with accompanying goggles) that resemble the Stahlhelm.
- During the 1960s and 1970s, the Stahlhelm became available on the surplus market in the United States and was soon picked up by outlaw bikers, and has since, through various books and films, also become associated with biker gangs such as the Hells Angels. Known as the „German style”, fiberglass replicas have since been manufactured both for novelty purposes and Department of Transportation-approved head protection.
- Due to its association with ideas of power, aggressiveness and domination the Stahlhelm also became popular with extreme metal fans, especially in the subgenres of thrash and black metal which often adopt military garments and paraphernalia such as bullet belts, gasmasks and so on.
- In the graphic novel Tintin and the Picaros, the San Theodorian troops wore white Stahlhelms (mostly as the helmet was used by authoritarian governmental armies throughout South America).
- Starting in the mid 1970s, original Stahlhelms also began to be used in World War II reenactments.
- The Stahlhelm influenced the design of RoboCaine in Robocop 2.
- The Stahlhelm, with the Japanese kabuto, inspired the helmet of Darth Vader and Stormtroopers in Star Wars, as were some of the helmet’s used by the imperial army in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (For example, General Veers and other AT-ST pilots).
- In a more peaceful setting, in the late 1990s, moulded fibreglass copies of the classic WW2 German Stahlhelm were seen in the streets of Indonesia. Available in gaudy colours, such as „sparkly” red, green or purple, they became popular with the country’s numerous moped riders. Inexpensively made, they had a simple nylon-strap liner and foam headband, with nylon Y-chinstrap and black rubber or nylon rim-edging. While possibly better than no headgear at all, it is doubtful whether this headgear would protect its wearer in an accident.
- The character Adrian Dangerous (played by Adrian Edmonson) of The Dangerous Brothers wore a Stahlhelm at some points. The Stahlhelm would also be seen in some of Edmonson’s subsequent characters.
- The helmet, both its WWI and WWII incarnations, is used in Warhammer 40,000 as well, particularly by the two sub-armies of the Imperial Guard, the Armageddon Steel Legion and Death Korps of Krieg, both of which being inspired by the German Army in both World Wars. Aside from the Imperial Guard, the Orks are also occasionally known to sport their own version of the Stahlhelm, more inspired by the outlaw cultures that have adopted it than the military institutions on which the guard is modeled.
- A Dutch company created a parody of the German helmet to be worn at the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany, in Orange, the national colour of the Netherlands. The Royal Netherlands Football Association said they found it in rather bad taste and discouraged the helmet to be worn at the event. Nevertheless, the helmet was a common sight among Dutch supporters in Germany. This helmet is called „Helmpje„, which is Dutch for little helmet, and has a number of versions with different texts written on the helmet itself: Jetzt Geht Losssss („here we gooooo” (misspelled) in German), Aanvalluh! („charrrge!” in Dutch), Hup Holland Hup! („Go Holland Go!”). The German responce to this parody was a Pickelhaube in the national colours black-red-gold.
- At the same time, a White version featuring the Red Cross of St George was made available in the UK to English supporters through a popular tabloid newspaper. Once again, the practice was decried as being in poor taste, especially as it was combined in some instances with arguably xenophobic „anti-German” coverage of the run up to the World Cup.
- In New Zealand the Mongrel Mob gang use the Stahlhelm on their patches, and sometimes wear them at gatherings.
- In the animated series Transformers: Animated the Decepticon Blitzwing wears a helmet similar to the Stalhelm.
- The helmet worn by the Decepticon leader Megatron also resembles the German Stahlhelm. In addition he transformed into a Walther P38, the standard-issue Wehrmacht pistol.
- Stahlhelms (and real DOT-approved motorcycle helmets made to resemble them) have been popular helmets in the motorcycle world, as a symbol of rebellion and defiance of the status quo.
- the Stahlhelm is sometimes conflated with the Pickelhaube and erroneously depicted with a metal spike on top, particularly in cartoons.