Heads Up: The History of Military Helmet Covers

April 17, 2024  
Categories: Learnin'
Tags: Helmets

The modern ballistic helmet used by militaries around the world today have generally the same shape – with a few notable exceptions. The helmets are also often described as being similar in shape to the infamous German “stahlhelm” (steel helmet) of the First and Second World Wars, but too much shouldn’t be read into it. The German Model 1916 and German Model 1935 helmets simply provided adequate protection to the wearer’s head. The more important consideration about today’s modern ballistic helmets is that almost all are now worn with camouflage covers. Though there had been efforts to paint the helmets with the same pattern of camouflage battle dress, covers simply allow for greater adaptability, while also helping the helmet maintain its effectiveness by protecting it from the elements. However, helmet covers are far from new and predated the modern combat helmet by decades.

Early Origins of the Helmet Cover

Combat helmets date back eons, and the original purpose was to protect the wearer from blunt impacts during a melee attack. Little consideration was given to the ballistic protection that helmets offered, and by the time early firearms were adopted, helmets had largely disappeared from the battlefield – except for cavalry units, which continued to wear helmets straight up to the First World War.

In fact, the Continental Dragoons that served under General George Washington in the American Revolution were among the first American military units to wear helmets. That headdress was made of a combination of brass, leather, and tin – and in foul weather was worn with makeshift covers.

dragoon helmet and helmet cover

Throughout the 19th century, similar covers were also worn over the various shakos and caps that saw service with militaries around the world and oftentimes the purpose of such covers was to help protect the headgear more than the wearer. Camouflage was a secondary consideration at best.

The British Army issued covers for its white sun/pith helmets in Africa and India – both to preserve the helmets but also to help reduce the glare in the summer sun. The heavily whitened helmets tended to reflect light, and as the British replaced the scarlet “red coats” with khaki tunics, khaki covers were issued to officers. This allowed the same helmet – privately purchased by the owner – to be worn on campaign in the field while it allowed it to remain nearly pristine for the parade ground.

german pickahabe

A few decades later, the German armies that marched into Belgium and France in the early stages of the First World War still wore their iconic leather “Pickelhaubes” (spiked helmets) with covers, mostly to protect the fairly expensive and fragile helmets, and for the same reasons as the British. It should be noted that early helmet covers featured bright red numbers to help officers identify their men from a reasonable distance. Concealment clearly wasn’t a primary consideration.

It was only as the conflict reached a stalemate, resulting in the horrors of trench warfare that the helmet covers featured more subdued numbers.

Steel Helmets and Helmet Covers: Taking Cover

Steel helmets for infantry made a comeback during the First World War, and despite some Internet misinformation, it wasn’t because a French general saw how a young soldier’s life was saved because he placed a soup bowl inside his cap. Rather the earliest attempt at providing some head protection was uncomfortable and ill-fitting skull caps that were probably better used as mess bowls!

However, it should be noted that the development of the new helmets coincided with covers. The thinking at the time was that the covers could reduce the glare and protect the helmets from mud and grime. Those early covers were made of simple materials, such as Hessian cloth, cotton drill, and burlap, but there is no indication any effort was made to produce camouflage patterns. Rather these were simply solid colors of undyed fabric.

In an ironic twist, the covers were removed from service because these were found to increase the risk of infection when a wearer suffered a serious head wound. The filth of the trenches quickly spread to the cloth covers, and if the helmet was pierced by shell splinters, pieces of dirty cloth would be carried into the wound, which increased the risk of infection.

anzac ww1 bodine helmet and burlap helmet cover

Thus, in mid-1916, the French Army ordered those covers be discarded, while the British quickly followed suit. The German helmets, which were made of thicker steel, tended not to have the same problem. However, the Germans suffered shortages of materials, which likely is why it also stopped producing covers.

Helmet Covers: World War II to the Modern Day

Despite the initial flaws with the covers, their use did continue, and notably the Japanese employed solid color cloth covers for its helmets during the Second World War – largely still to reduce glare but also to protect the helmets from the tropical elements. It should be noted that its early tropical helmets were designed to be worn over the steel helmets and serve as a de facto cover. How often this was done is a matter of speculation, however.

Both Germany and the United States also explored how camouflage covers could be employed not to protect the helmet, but rather to help provide some actual concealment.

german paratrooper helmets featuring camoflage helmet cover

Nazi Germany’s paratroopers (Fallschirmjägers) were among the first to use camouflage covers in Europe, while the infamous Waffen SS also adopted helmet covers with a variety of camouflage patterns including the first “reversible pattern” covers. Helmet covers were finally about protecting the soldier more than about protecting the helmet!

The United States Marine Corps adopted covers that featured its iconic “frogskin” pattern, and those were also reversible. Due to the Waffen SS using camouflage, and to avoid any potentially deadly confusion, the U.S. Army largely stopped issuing camouflage equipment to its soldiers in Europe. Some U.S. soldiers, notably paratroopers, did employ netting – a technique also used by British and German forces. But true covers were largely unseen throughout Europe on the helmets of the American GI.

US GI helmet cover variations from World War II to Vietnam

That wasn’t the case just two decades later, during the Vietnam War when most soldiers were issued helmet covers featuring the Mitchell Pattern camouflage. Those helmet covers and that particular pattern have become an enduring symbol of the U.S. military’s involvement in Southeast Asia.

The modern PASGT helmet and helmet cover scheme.

With the development of the PASGT (Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops), camouflage covers became standard with the new ballistic helmets in the U.S. military. By the latter stages of the Cold War, camouflage covers were almost universally worn – and that has only continued.

As noted, there have been largely unsuccessful efforts to see the helmets painted with a camouflage pattern, but it would seem that the covers offer the simplest and most adaptable solution. Simply put, they get the job done – and while at times, it can be hard to distinguish one helmet from another, the camouflage patterns remain fairly unique.

For more militaria, check the following reads:

Peter Suciu

Peter Suciu

About the Author

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based freelance writer who regularly covers firearms related topics and military history. As a reporter, his work has appeared in dozens of magazines, newspapers, and websites. Among those are Homeland Security Today, Armchair General, Military Heritage, The Mag Life, Newsweek, The Federalist, AmmoLand, Breach-Bang-Clear, Newsweek, RECOILweb, Wired, and many (many) others. He has collected military small arms and military helmets most of his life, and just recently navigated his first NFA transfer to buy his first machine gun. He is co-author of the book A Gallery of Military Headdress, which was published in February 2019. It is his third book on the topic of military hats and helmets.


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