More to Combat Helmets Than Gucci Looks

January 24, 2017 11 min read

More to Combat Helmets Than Gucci Looks

When you’re in the business of safety equipment; testing, evaluation and quality control are specific areas where corners cannot be cut. Companies who manufacture head protection; specifically ballistic protection, adhering to standards are exponentially more important than how cool, light or other adjectives used to create a selling point to  the end user. Warfighters helmets are critical to his or her everyday operational readiness; in fact, detrimental if quality protection isn’t used or worn.

 Back in the old days of OIF I-III, everywhere we looked, civilian and Military operators had k-pots on or strapped to them one way or the other. Many of them looked a bit ridiculous; due to fitment, or generation of the helmet. 14 years ago, we (The United States) pooled about every resource we had to ensure our warfighters and support elements had an adequate solution to protection in active war zones. In some; or most cases this included held over equipment from conflicts past. In any case, back in those days, batteries of rockets and mortars made their way into the “green zone” (International Zone) daily, and those working within it were at the good graces of the accuracy of the launch. As soon as the C-RAM went off, suddenly nobody cared if they looked like Rick Moranis’ character of Lord Dark Helmet in the 1980’s movie Space Balls. It simply came down to protecting your brains from flying fragmentation, or blunt force…one of the leading causes of TBI in people returning from active war zones.

 Since WWII studies have shown that the predominant injuries to the head came from fragmentation from bombs, Artillery and other ballistic threats. Since the GWOT started civilians and active Military have experienced more non-combat head injuries such as falls, blunt force and more commonly…car accidents. When there is a blistering number of head injuries moving the proverbial needle, a top down assessment of what we are issuing those that put themselves in harm’s way is in order.


What is what?

It is easy to armchair quarterback the gear and equipment issued and how it is tested before it reaches the hard end user. What goes into the process?  Who is the approving authority? Why make the changes to something that is perceived as “not broken”? The Department of Defense and National Institute of Justice (NIJ) narrowed the pandemic down to three root causes. Being cognizant that certain caliber of projectiles carry certain amounts of lethal force. The 9mm was a good starting point, for no other reason than the kinetic energy that they bring upon contact. Testing agencies have realized that; although lethal, it is a relatively small contributor to head injuries within the DoD area of operations.  The fact remains that gunshot wounds during the GWOT is extraordinarily different than of wars past, but if equipment can defeat the ballistics behind them, the odds are stacked in the warfighters favor and that many other ballistic threats will be defeated as well.


There are more people returning from the Global War on Terror with Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) due to blunt trauma, explosions and trauma caused by overpressure. I specifically remember the days of pre-memory foam or other high-density material. The only thing that separated your noggin from the inner shell of my combat helmet was a mesh lining of sorts. Through the evolution of warfighting, studies have shown a dramatic increase in head and neck injuries from the 2nd World War to OEF and OIF; to the tune of about 18 percent. According to the National Academy of Sciences and National Library of Medicine, there were roughly 509 direct impacts of head wounds sustained in the GWOT as of 2014. The Table below depicts an approximate head injury report since WWII.



Gunshot Wounds (%)

Explosions (%)




Korean Conflict










Clearly, throughout conflicts explosions and blunt force is the leading cause of brain injury. That said we cannot discard the threat of bullets especially since the lion share of warfighting in the GWOT takes place in close quarters; whether it be in a short burst fire fight or clearing houses. The kinetic energy through the relatively small but fast 9mm has been deemed necessary to test against protective equipment, supersonic rifle calibers need to be tested to ensure adequate safety. Per the Board on Army Science and Technology 5 common loads used by recent adversaries [or those that are on the radar] are tested against the updated combat helmet.



7.62x39 (AK47)

5.8x42 (QBZ 95)

5.56x45 (QBZ 97)



7.62x63 aka .30 06 (M1 Garand)

7.62x51 (HK G3A6)

5.56x45 (S-5.56)



7.62x39 (AK Types 58, 68)

5.45x39 (AK type 88)



7.62x39 (AKM)

5.45x39 (AK74, AK74 M)

 Fragmentation: The principal source of wounding on the battlefield. Shed from weapons designed to throw as much lethal force as possible by one explosion. I.e rockets, grenades, mortars, mines, artillery and IEDs. Each have spatial distribution of fragments that vary in size and ballistic trajectory. All of which are virtually unpredictable. Throughout the GWOT IEDs have proven to be the leading cause of a multitude of death and injury on the battlefield. Per the review of DoD testing protocols, there is limited data pertaining to blast and frag dispersion by IEDs due to the unpredictability in active warzones. Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) experts calculate blast radius and fragmentation by explosive weight and surrounding terrain however these factors play a significant role in data input with testing procedures for ballistic helmets and other protective equipment.  

 Blunt Force: Battlefield injuries pertaining to blunt force are pervasive and a common with everyone from door kickers to vehicular transport and airborne operators. Studies have shown that falls, vehicle crashes, impact with armored vehicle interiors and impacts from parachute drops are the most common injuries relating to forceful injury.

Our lead vehicle after being struck by an IED in Baghdad in 2005, there were no lasting injuries but we got bumped around, armored glass usually wins against skulls, it is important to have sufficient head gear 

If you have spent any amount of time in Kabul or Baghdad, you know that traffic safety isn’t exactly on the top of the indigenous personnel priority lists let alone IEDs that will throw your vehicle for a loop depending on size and proximity. 

 Leading off a series of tests it is common to conduct a simple drop test to emulate the helmet impacting a force in which has no absorption and is extremely rigid. The depiction in the diagram below represents the what threats are tested and the velocity in which the helmet impacts.



Impact Velocity (feet/second)

Fall – Half the height of avg man (3 ft)


Fall – Full height of avg man (6 ft)


Parachute Drop


Vehicle Crash (unrestrained) @35 MPH



Though blunt force injury is not limited to only the causes previously discussed, testing standards are derived from the most commonly reported injuries in recent conflicts and statistical data. Primary blast injuries are also at the top of the heap for hospitalizations and fatalities on the battlefield. The previously acceptable level of brain injuries is much lower than tested in the past. Studies have shown that TBI can occur under a significantly lower threshold. Companies like Hard Head Veterans and other manufacturers are on the forefront of researching and understanding where that threshold of “safe impacts” of blunt force trauma, if there is such a thing!  

 Proof In the Pudding

As with anything that is constructed to ensure survivability against bullets, bumps, explosions and bad guys how these articles are built, up to and including materials and design play a key role in quality.  Before a helmet is selected and approved by the US Government there are a series of checks aside from the safety testing that must be adhered to. Everything from design to coating; all the way down to the pad (or inner lining) suspension systems. We have filtered through the pages and pages of standards and the “must haves” to narrate into this article for informing the hard end user of what to look for while in the market for a ballistic helmet.


Shell Design: The shape of the shell in combat helmets must meet the DoD standards for sufficient coverage of the skull and nape. Once the helmet is removed from the mold, the inner and outer shells must be smooth and even. Each helmet is inspected for holes, voids, delamination (inconsistencies in outer coating/resin), blisters, cracks, dry spots and areas of non-resin flows measuring 1/8th inch in diameter. This includes the depth of the resins which cannot be deeper than 1 ply into the material of the helmet. There cannot be raised fibers, pleats, wrinkles or creases longer than 1 inch on either interior or exterior surfaces. According to these manufacturing processes, repairs are not to be conducted after initial molding is complete. If you receive a helmet that has obvious repairs done, turn it into supply or return it to the manufacturer. If a manufacturer wishes to repair cosmetic damage, their plan must be submitted to government officials in writing to be approved.


Some will argue that the thickness of the shell plays a key role in the protective capabilities of the helmet. The NIJ and DoD have proven that to be false. As a matter of fact, approved combat helmets are not authorized to be greater than .400 inches regardless of nominal thickness. This standard is applicable before finishing’s are applied and will not possess a .100-inch variance.


As technology grows, there have been many cutting-edge optics, lights and illumination devices manufactured to help our warfighters and law enforcement agencies achieve efficient and effective results in their day to day operations. To attach these products, holes must be drilled into helmets to ensure a secure fit and proper placement. Any hole drilled into a combat helmet must be done so before the laminate or coatings are applied.


Rounding out the edges of each ballistic shell comes the edging process. Although the rubber or plastic finishing offers no ballistic advantage to the helmet itself; the purpose is to prevent fraying or peeling along the edges of the helmet. Believe it or not, there are strict standards that must be adhered to during the installation process. Throughout the testing procedures, the edging must be secured by a high temperature and tensile strength epoxy that cannot peel more than ¼ of an inch. Additionally, a 1.5 lb weight is suspended for 1 hour on the open end of the edge to ensure that the edging is secure.  


Comfort and Compatibility: Remember what we talked about earlier in the old days of a mesh suspension system with a forehead pad that felt like sandpaper and a plastic chin cup that was expected to keep a helmet in place? Back then TBI was not of as much of a concern as it is today, studies showed that blast and frag were among the leading causes of head injuries in warfighters and LE professionals. Fast forward 14 years, the padding and suspension systems in helmets play as much or more of a role in preventing TBI as the shell itself, depending on what perspective you look at it from. A helmets padding is tested and evaluated as stringently as the inner and outer shells of the helmets. A pad must not exceed .65 inches of nominal thickness. This means that all the material covering the impact absorption is cut away and measured. Each pad is measured at 5 random locations. Per these standards, there cannot be a difference of 1/8th inch in any portion of the padding. The finished padding inside of your helmet undergo as series of compression tests conducted on an extension machine where each pad is compressed 10 times throughout a 15 second period. Once the tests are complete, the fabric is removed and inspected for inconsistencies and pad failure (not taking to its original form). Once the pads pass the compression tests they are then submerged in salt water for a minimum of 12 hours, excess water is shed by shaking the pads by hand (yes this is a standard). After shaking the pads water is then blotted from the front and back (not the sides) and left to air dry for 24 hours in an ambient environment [70 degress F] with 65% relative humidity. After being crushed, submerged, dried out the pad must not increase in weight more than 3%, if it does the test subject is a failure. Passing pads are placed in at least 5 locations within the helmet fastned by hook and loop discs applicable to pad size.

 What makes the Helmet…a Helmet?

We have talked about what is tested, but we have strategically left out the method in which the tests are done, and how they do them. At the end of the day, a helmet must protect the end user against everything we have talked about up to this point. After the molding is complete, edging installed, coatings are applied, and holes drilled and measured it is now time to test the integrity of the shell.  


Ballistics testing goes further than shooting a helmet with various loads to see if there is penetration. Testing facilities use Roma Plastilina, an oil-based non-hardening molding clay to fill in the coronal channel (vital head area) of a mannequin skull that is comparable to the human skull to measure impacts, energy dispersion and penetration of projectiles.  


The helmet is divided into 5 sections; one top section that is 5 inch diameter circle and four bottom sections. There will be no impacts lower than 1 inch above the edging of each helmet below the 5-inch circle on the top of the helmet.


Well aimed well placed shots: Once the helmet is situated atop of the aluminum alloy mannequin 2 projectiles are strategically placed into the helmet in each respective “sections”. Using the benchmark as the one consistent place designated during the molding process of each helmet. Think of the benchmark as the constant in each helmet, located at the crown; it is the spot where all measurements are taken from. All shots are impacted within 1.5 inches of each other or any manufactured hole. When all is said and done each helmet will have impacts in the following spots on the helmet:

  • One round on the crown of the helmet at the intersection of the sagittal and coronal planes
  • Two rounds on the coronal plane one on the left and right side above the earflaps
  • One round in the mid sagittal plane at the front of the helmet (1.5 inches from the NVG hole(s)
  • One round in the mid sagittal plane to the rear of the helmet

Summing up the rounds put into the helmet; Crown, rear, left, right and front.


Crushing results: Once ballistics testing is complete, helmets from each lot undergo a series of crush, environmental, chemical and flame resistance testing. Prior to conducting each, 6 samples from various sizes and lots are picked out and acclimated to cold weather (14 degree ambient temperatures) and hot weather (130 degree ambient temps) for an entire day.


If you have not figured out by now, there is quite literally no stone left unturned when approving a helmet to the NIJ and DoD standards. Up to this point, we have as simplistically as possible explained the ballistics testing procedures, drop testing, and cold conditions using temperature and 40k feet hyperbaric chamber testing. The last major test that goes into helmet manufacturing is crush resistance. Each helmet is placed into the same compression machine used to test the padding. A 2 ½ inch anvil is used to apply downward pressure at a rate of 12 inches per minute until a compressive force of 400 lbs is achieved. This process will be continued for 23 additional cycles. Measurements of the helmet are recorded, there is no allowable variance to the helmet after testing. The same process is conducted for horizontal testing with the only exception being a total compressive force of 300 lbs vs the 400 lbs in the previous testing.

 Confused yet?!

We can sum up this article in saying that there is much more that goes into the manufacturing process and testing procedures of the ballistic combat helmet than we know, most of us have even taken them for granted, I know in my 17 years of world travel I certainly have! Company’s such as Hard Head Veterans spare no cost in ensuring the best possible results when supplying first responders, warfighters and other security personnel with their head borne gear. If you took the time to read all the way through this article, hopefully you have taken away some invaluable knowledge in what to look for in a helmet that can and ultimately will save your live. It is imperative that when looking for a helmet it is certified NIJ meaning the National Institute of Justice conducted these series of tests, and the company who made them have a perfect tract record. Make sure a product checks out in its testing, after all your life depends on it!