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The Stahlhelm (English: steel helmet) is a German military steel combat helmet which was designed by Professor Dipl.-Ing., Dr.-Ing. E. h. Friedrich Magnus Schwerd in 1915, although his wife, an artist, was responsible for the distinctive German military form. The helmet would not only provide invaluable protection to each German soldier who wore it, but would serve as a symbol of the Great War that continues to this very day and also served as a model for modern-day combat helmets of many countries. Its influence on contemporary military and police headgear can be seen clearly. For example, the US-American Army helmet, the PASGT Kevlar helmet, bares a striking resemblance to the Model 1935 Stahlhelm.

German helmets of WWI and Freikorps (Totenkopf)


Manufacturing process (Modell 1916 or M16)
Stahlhelm "M18" with camouflage
A Stahlhelm as a symbol of the mourning of a lonely mother for her fallen () son
Stahlhelm M38 for Fallschirmjäger with the eagle of the Luftwaffe which differed from the eagle of the army or Heer.
Waffen-SS helmets with the double-sig rune insignia of the SS rune.png

The German steel helmet was inspired during the First World War by the German doctor Marine-Generalarzt Prof. Dr. med. August Karl Gustav Bier, who had to experience the horrible head wounds in the first months of the war (and performed the 1st spinal anesthetic in history), first on the Western Front and then from 1916 in the military hospitals of the Reich. The helmet replaced as Stahlschutzhelm Modell 1916 the hitherto customary Pickelhaube ("spiked helmet"), which was gradually replaced in the course of 1916, as military headgear in the Imperial German Army. As early as 1915, Army Department B (Armee-Abteilung B), with its Commander-in-Chief General der Infanterie Hans Emil Alexander Gaede, had proved that iron helmets, weighing two kilograms and made on the initiative of Lieutenant-Colonel Hesse, significantly improved head protection.

In the early months of 1916 the surviving members of a small squad of German soldier huddled in the sordid recesses of a French shell hole somewhere in the proximity of Verdun. White hot shrapnel, fragments of rock, splinters of wood and earth careened overhead as French artillery shells burst overhead. The men drew their bodies down into the mud, clutching earth with filthy hand, taking shallow breaths, anything to present less of a target for the shrapnel’s deadly effects. Just as the rain of deadly confetti began to slackened a shrapnel splinter about the size a pea slammed into the smooth surface of one of the men’s steel helmets. The contact of metal on metal created a distinctive thud, followed by a gasp from the now wounded German soldier. Realizing that one of their comrades has been hit by one of these murderous bits of metal two of the men pulled themselves over the the wounded man’s side. One man drew the leather strap back his comrade’s chin while the other lifted the steel helmet from off his head. As the helmet was lifted the wounded man’s eyes opened blinked, then gently moving his head from side to side, he uttered something that sounded like, “how bad” his comrades smiled back at him knowing that the splinter did not penetrate the steel, only denting it slightly. His only problem now would be a terrible headache, but a small price to pay to live another day. Scene like this were playing themselves out all over the muddy battlefields of the Great War. What makes this antidote all the more interesting is had these events occurred a few months prior, the soldier would have perished from the shrapnel strike. These men, part of the 1st assault battalion commanded by a certain Captain Rohn. They has been designated to test the German army’s newest bit of equipment. The model 1916 steel helmet. A helmet that would not only provide invaluable protection to each German soldier who wore it, but would serve as a symbol of the Great War that continues to this very day. Casualties from head wound are nothing new to warfare. Every army since the beginning of time has had to deal with their deadly effects. World War I was different though. The modern weaponry of the era had shown it had the ability to inflict a staggering number of head wounds, not previously experienced to the degree in earlier conflicts. Between 1914-15 the number of causalities, (many of them dead, or so severely wounded they could not return to active duty) made both the Allied and Central Powers take notice. To deal with the growing issue the German High Command (de) authorized the development of a steel protective helmet. In December 1915, military physician Friedrick Schwerd and professor August Bier of the Technical Institute of Hanover developed a prototype for field trials. The helmet was fabricated with high quality chromium-nickel steel and featured a visor and sloping skirt which protected the wearer’s neck and ears. Helmet shells were produced initially in size 60-66, and later in size 68 and 70. The design was fairly innovative for the era, and offered far more protection to the wearer than designs chosen by the opposing British and French forces, both of which left the neck and ears exposed. One notable feature of the design are two raised “horns” or Stirmpanzer lugs set on each side of the helmet. These lugs were deigned with the dual purpose of ventilation and to accommodate a removable sentries’ steel brow plate or Stirmpanzer. The brow plate proved to be impractical but photos do exist of these heavy bits of armor being used in combat. The Stirnpanzer lugs were made in different lengths for different sized helmets. The smaller the helmet the more extended the lug was from it’s base. The Stirnpanzer was only made in one size, therefore different size lugs allowed the plate to be accommodated on whatever size helmet was. These protruding lugs gave the helmet somewhat of an odd look. In the post-war era some have taken to refereeing to the model as the Frankenstein helmet, since the lugs resemble the bolts on the Frankenstein’s monster’s neck as portrayed in Universal Pictures film. Some have even claimed that soldier of the era refereed to the helmet as such. This is of course erroneous as the movie wasn’t released unit 1931 well after the end of the Great War. The newly designed steel helmet was issued to the 1st Assault battalion (Sturm-Bataillon Nr. 5) sometime in December of 1915. The field trial proved so successful that Chief of Staff, General von Falkenhayn (de) authorized the issue of steel helmets. The first delivery was made in January of 1916. 30,000 of these helmets were sent to the Verdun front. Distribution to the rest of the Imperial forces continued slowly through the rest of 1916 to April of 1917. Early production M16 helmets are known to collectors as “square dips”; due to the square shape formed where the bill dips to the skirt. Engineers at the Eisenhüttenwerk plant (where these early helmets were produced) ended up modifying the design slightly due to the fact that during the manufacturing process the helmet’s skirt would often crack. A good many “square dip” helmets did pass inspection however and photos show them worn though-out the war. A few have been found with late-war camouflage patterns indicating usage though the entire war.
It seems that the distribution of steel helmets to the men in the field but a slow affair. On January 22, 1917 a telegram was sent to all army groups by General Ludendorff, chief of the General Staff. It announced that the all German troops were to be equipped with a steel helmet. This assumes that much of the army at that point had not received a steel helmet. After the order was issued it still would have taken time to be carried out, many men would have not received their steel helmets till mid 1917. Each German helmet is marked on the flange with a manufacture mark and size stamp. There are at least 14 known manufactures. The inside dome of the helmet is also marked with a code known as a “heating lot number” This number was to aid in quality control at the factory level. In some cases it may indicate where the helmet’s steel was rolled. It is believed that more than 7 million helmets were produced during the period of 1916-1918. The largest share of these helmets was produced by Eisenhüttenwerk, Thale, AG, F.C. Bellinger, Fulda, and Eisenhuette Silesia, Paruschowitz Oberschlesien. These factories are known today by collectors as “the big three”. The German military went to great lengths to insure quality control of their helmets. Contemporary records dating to June of 1916, show one helmet out of a lot of 101 was tested for steel integrity on the rifle range during ballistic testing – multiple shots at a distance of 40 meters using an antiquated black powder 1871 11 mm Mauser. If the inward dent exceeded 2 mm or other failure occurred, a further 5 helmets from the lot were to be tested. If these failed, the lot was scrapped and the steel mill which supplied the ingot was required to overtake the costs for scrapping them. During the final acceptance, each helmet was inspected in-plant by a quality control team made up of an Officer, NCO and some enlisted men known as Abnahmekommando. Prior to the installation of the liner, attention was given to weight, dimensions and paint adherence in addition to structural soundness of the shell. Each helmet that passed inspection was marked with an ink stamp made from a conjoined AK (for Abnahmekommando) on the inside rear flange by the acceptance officer. Helmets that did not pass were scrapped. Great care was taken to make sure no flawed helmet left the factory. Helmets were painted at the factory with smooth low-gloss linseed oil based enamel paint. The color was designated as “field-gray”. The term field gray can be somewhat confusing as original helmets vary greatly in color. The official war department authorized formula was, 30% white pigment in an oil base, 15% ochre pigment (dry), 5% blue pigment (dry), 5% black pigment (dry) 20% turpentine, 10% siccative and 15% water. Yet original helmet paint can range from dark green to olive. Although some shades appear to be factory specific, it is not uncommon to find helmets produced at the same factory which exhibit variations in field gray. Color matching was not an exact science at the time which may explain the variation in shades of field gray. Once painted the helmets were oven cured at 120 degrees Celsius for eight hours.
There is often some confusion between the designation M16 and M17. The designation actually does not refer to the helmet at all, but to the liner. German helmets produced between January of 1916 and May of 1917 are fit with an all leather liner. The M16 liner consists of three individual 2-finger pads sewn to a leather band. Each pad has a cloth pocket with ties sewn onto the back. The pocket is designed to accommodate horse hair or gauze “pillow” which would allow for a more snug fit to the wearer’s head. The pillows could also be removed to allow for a larger head size. In May of 1917 due to a leather shortage the liner was redesigned. The new liner continued with the earlier “three pad” system but changed from a leather band to a steel band made from sheet metal. The pads were now crimped into place on a steel band. Another changed was made to the liner as well. The pads were now to be made from white chromed leather (Russian leather) instead of brown vegetable tanned leather. This change was made in hopes that the chromed leather would hold up better under the constant moister of the trenches. That being said large numbers of brown vegetable tanned pads had been produced and it is not uncommon to find these pads on both M17 and later M18 liners. M17 liner pads are sometimes found made from non-standard leather and backed with non-standard cloth. As the cost of war continued to plague the Germans ersatz materials were often substituted. M17 pads are found made from rabbit, goat, and sheep and on rare occasions pig skins. Coarse burlap was often substituted for the pad backing when cotton and linen where not available. There is some debate among collectors as to when and if production of the older M16 liners ceased. Original helmets are occasionally found with M16 liners bearing 1917 dated manufacture and or depot stamps. Whether these helmets are the result of being produced before May of 1917 or possibly were refit at the depot level with recycled M16 liner is almost impossible to know with any degree of certainty. It maybe possible that a few manufactures continued to fabricate M16 liners after the design was modified. [...]
No discussion on German helmets can be complete without touching on camouflage (Tarnung). The smooth factory finish on the helmets reflected the sun’s glare making a tempting target for the enemy. To make matters worse individual soldiers took to the practice of polishing their helmets with motor oil to a high gloss for inspection. Early techniques to camouflage were to smear the helmet with mud which effectively hid all traces of a glossy finish. In January of 1917 the war ministry authorized the testing of white colored canvas helmet covers which were to be issued to troops in snowy regions of the front. On February 14th of 1917 the war ministry also authorized the production of earth and field gray colored canvas helmet covers. Some discussion was made between High Command and the General Supply Offices as to whether these covers were to be worn strictly by sentries and patrols or were all soldiers to be issued with such a cover. It appears no decision was ever made, but contemporary records indicate 800,000 covers were issued. As is often the case soldiers found their own ingenious ways to camouflage their helmets. Some men cut up old sand bags and shaped the burlap over the dome of the helmet, then with section of bailing wire secured the cloth to the helmet. Original photos as well as surviving helmets attest to a variety of methods used. The practice of painting camouflage patterns on helmets has been a source of some debate. The scarcity of surviving original photos taken at the front of men wearing these helmet had lead some to erroneously believe that the practice was by in large a post-war aberration or was allowed limited in certain units such as Storm troopers or Machinegun battalions. While it is true that many enterprising Allied soldiers and French peasants painted camouflage patterns on discarded German helmets in order to sell them as war souvenirs, the German high command did in fact authorizes and encourage the painting of camouflage patterns onto combat helmet. In July of 1918 a directive came down from Chief of General Staff Ludendorff which called for helmets to be painted with a camouflage pattern. [...] Attesting to the superior protection offered by the M16 and both M18 model helmets, these helmets continued to be worn long after the end of WWI. Both models would see future service with slight modifications in the Reichswehr as well as in Hitler’s armed forces during WWII. Many of these helmets were even purchased by foreign nations after the war and were worn well in to the 1970s. The superior protection that the design offered served as the basis for future German steel helmets. Although the M16 and M18 helmet has long since been retired from service the helmet’s influence can still be felt. One needs to look no further that at the modern Kevlar helmets worn by U.S. and NATO troops. The design of these modern helmets offer the same protection that German soldier of the Great War all received from their steel helmets. One can only wonder what the ghost of Dr. Schwerd and Dr. Bier might think if they were to appear today. They may well be pleased that the influences of their 1915 design are still offering protection and preserving the lives of many servicemen and women.[1]


The German army Stahlhelm, as well as the Japanese Kabuto, served as a template for the fictional character's Darth Vader outfit in the Star Wars franchise. Members of the Wolf Brigade, a fictional Japanese unit in the anime Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade are equipped with Stahlhelme, as well as Wehrmacht weapons of the Second World War, including StG 44s and MG 42s.

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External links

In German