In this article we will revi-… bang! You died. Unexpected, isn’t it? That’s how it feels, when you are wearing a wrong ballistic helmet. You really should invest your time into learning how to choose a ballistic helmet so that it won’t end up like above in the real world.
You know, there are many good ballistic helmets on the market such as Ops-Core or Wendy Team or whatever. But you need to understand what exactly makes a helmet the good one, and how to choose the best helmet for your real tactical needs. That’s what this article is about. Now read along.
About tactical needs
Choosing the right helmet is always the matter of selecting the best one for your specific mission. There is no some “one size fits all” answer to all your tactical questions. The helmet you pick must match your task, mission, environment conditions, potential threats, and ways you mean to communicate with your team. Your mission is the first you should think about when you are to buy a ballistic helmet.
Ok, that sounded too general, perhaps, so let’s dig further.
Assess potential threats
The first thing you must do is to consider potential risks and threats you may face with on the mission. A hand gun shot is one story, but a shotgun, a rifle or a high risk of fragmentation damage is another.
Depending on your mission type and your role on that mission, you should select the most fitting ballistic helmet, not just the one you think the best or the most advanced one. Think of it this way. If you are on a mission to arrest a potentially armed individual – you need a helmet to protect your head from blunt damage and some most common threats such as pistol rounds. But if you are a soldier serving in a war conflict, you need a much more serious ballistic helmet to protect your from potential 5.54 shots and fragmentation damage.
Take into account conditions
While on the mission, you will be wearing your ballistic helmet all the time, so you really need to consider environment conditions and other factors that may affect the efficiency of the helmet or YOUR efficiency as a tactical unit.
Some examples of such factors are:
- Climate. Ventilation and moisture management are critical in the hot climate.
- Distances you need to travel with your helmet on. The longer you need to wear your helmet, the more its weight affects your mobility and fatigue.
- Scenario you will interact with your team members or suspects. Sometimes you can expect 100% resistance, while in other cases, any backfire is merely a possibility.
Consider what tactical devices you need
On your mission, a range of tactical devices may come in handy, so your ballistic helmet must be compatible with all of them. Let’s name a few:
- Compatibility with communication devices is critical when you need to act as a whole with your team for the success of the mission. Make sure your helmet allows mounting the radio set, and is compatible with one of your choice.
- Compatibility with night vision is a must if your mission – be it some Spec-ops operation or a military assault – takes place during darkness hours.
- Wearing sunglasses is a must in a sunny day when a single sun glare can affect your aim or hide an enemy from you. Many otherwise good ballistic helmets are not adapted to sunglasses, so you will feel uncomfortable while wearing both.
- Compatibility with attached equipment. Modern ballistic helmets should allow you to attach any auxiliary devices you may need on your mission. You may not know what items exactly you will need, but if the helmet does allow securing a range of various items – that’s a bonus for sure.
After you defined your mission, you can look further and refine your available options by ballistic protection they provide.
And now we need to say a few words about NIJ standards for ballistics helmets. You see: there is no such a standard. Ok, well, technically, there is one, but it is dated 80’s, so it simply doesn’t stand against current threats and ballistic damages. Luckily, all major manufacturers of ballistic helmets know that, and do not rely on outdated NIJ standards, but instead use the more general NIJ threat levels developed for armor plates and body armor. Sounds too confusing? Don’t worry, we’ll explain.
What is the NIJ threat level
The NIJ threat level is a level a certain piece of armor should withstand to be certified correspondingly. Currently, there are five NIJ threat levels:
- Level IIA. This threat level includes FMJ RN bullets up to 8 g that are shot with a velocity of up to 373 m/s; and .40 FMJ up to 11.7 g and 352 m/s.
- Level II. This threat level includes FMJ RN bullets with a mass of 8.0g and a velocity of 398 m/s; and .357 Magnum bullets with a mass of 10.2g and a velocity of 436 m/s.
- Level IIIA threat describes .357 SIG FMJ FN bullets with a mass of 8.1g and a velocity of 448 m/s and with .44 Magnum up to 15.6g and up to 436 m/s.
- Level III. This threat level is mostly about 7.62 FMJ lead core ammo (up to 9.6 g and 847 m/s).
- Level IV. Finally, this threat level describes .30 cal armor piercing bullets (M2 AP) with a mass of 10.8g and a velocity of 878 m/s or similar.
So, if some armor is certified as NIJ Level III it is guaranteed to withstand the designated amount of shots of the specified threat, in this case – 7.62 rifle shots.
What about the NIJ rating for ballistic helmets?
As we said above, the NIJ standard for ballistic helmets is somewhat outdated. There are no NIJ standards for helmets above NIJ Level II, which is laughingly low for today’s ballistic threats.
Does that mean there are no good Level III or Level IV ballistic helmets? Hell, no! What it does mean, is that there are no NIJ Level IV certified ballistic helmets, that’s it. Manufacturers conduct their own testing of helmets and take the NIJ standards for ballistic armor vests as a reference.
This practically means that any helmet in sale that is marketed as Level IV ballistic helmet is in fact a helmet that’s tested against NIJ 0101.06 standard (for body armor), not NIJ 0106.01 (for helmets).
Materials of helmets
Contemporary ballistic helmets are made of one of the following three materials.
Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene is widely used as a material for body armor including ballistic helmets. It is very lightweight, but has significant stopping power thanks to extremely tear-resistance of the UHMWPE fibers. Almost all modern helmets use this material, at least partially.
Actually, there any many synthetic fibers, not just Kevlar. What’s common about them is their extreme resistance to physical damage, so they are primary material for body armors and ballistic helmets alike. Kevlar helmets are not as lightweight as polyethylene ones, but are steel much lighter than steel, and possess excellent absorption properties.
Steel is historically one of the first materials head protective gear was made from. Many modern helmets – and efficient ones! – are made of steel even today. The only real disadvantage of steel ballistic helmets is weight. However, steel is unbeatable in terms of strength and durability.
Helmet types and cuts
As technologies evolved, ballistic helmets adopted them to become more efficient, more reliable and more comfortable. As a result, you can find several ballistic helmet types on the market today. Here are the main ones.
- PASGT. This type of helmets was developed in 1983 and initially consisted of 19 layers of Kevlar. Currently, PASGT helmets are only used by U.S. Army Reserve.
- MICH. MICH helmets have replaced PASGT in 2000s. They have lower weight and are more comfortable thanks to a more advanced lining system and a four-point chin strap.
- ACH. A more advanced version of MICH helmets with superior protective capabilities.
- ECH. This enhanced version of the ACH type uses lightweight polyethylene for even better protection and lower weight. However, ECH helmets may be bulkier.
- FAST. Stands for Future Assault Shell Technology. This is the primary helmet type for Special Forces and Army today. FAST helmets have reduced weight thanks to UHMWPE and high cut or super high cut, and allow mounting external features just like MICH and ACH helmets.
Which helmet type to select? This depends on your budget and your tactical mission. PASGT helmets are the most affordable. And you hardly will need a more advanced type for a guarding mission, for instance. If you are a soldier, or a law enforcement officer, you should look at MICH and ACH types. For SWAT and Special Operations, FAST is generally recommended.
As for helmet cuts, there are also several of them:
- Full cut. Provides maximum coverage for your head from back and sides, as well as ears and forehead. On the downside, you may have to run your communications under the helmet, not over it. Also, full cut helmets are less comfortable and are generally heavier.
- Low or mid cut. Many MICH/ACH helmets are low cut. This helmet cut is comfortable enough and still provides adequate protection from shrapnel. Also, it allows for using some rails on it.
- High cut. High cut helmets are lightweight, but offer minimal protection from fragmentation and shrapnel damage, so if you anticipate such types of threats on the mission, you should pick some more protected cut instead.
How to choose a ballistic helmet
With plethora of offers on the market, it can be hard to choose a ballistic helmet that’s right for you. In addition to ballistic protection and helmet type, there are other things to consider. Of course, just like with everything else, you should always take into account your goals and the specifics of your tactical mission.
Overall, it’s all about balance between cost, weight, size, protection capabilities, and comfort.
Low weight is generally a good thing, but it comes for a price. Reduced weight is achieved and is often accompanied by reduced protection of the ballistic helmet. Yes, a high cut helmet still protects your head from direct shots, but it exposes a lot more to shrapnel.
Thanks to modern materials, such as UHMWPE there are less weighty ballistic helmets that can offer decent protection too, but their price is usually higher. And of course, wearing a heavy bucket on your head can be exhausting, which immediately affects your combat efficiency.
Size and fit
First of all, combat helmets are manufactured in a variety of sizes. The general, non manufacturer-specific size chart is:
- S size is 20 inches
- M size is between 20 and 22 inches
- L size is for 21 to 24 inches heads
- XL is for heads over 24 inches
Although, manufacturers may have their own size charts, so you better check them before you buy anything.
Picking the right size of the helmet is important. Vitally important, actually. If the helmet is too small, it will fit too high and therefore will be unstable on your head compromising your protection. On the other hand, too loose fit can disturb you and limit your vision. Many modern marks and models of ballistic helmets feature adjustable harness and padding systems. This way you can make the helmet fit ideally on your head.
How do you know the helmet sits ideally? First of all, it should not fit too tight or too loose. Then, the inner pads must be fully in contact with your head. If you cannot make the helmet sit on your head this way, you probably need a larger size. When you turn or shake your head, the helmet must remain in place firmly. If it doesn’t, you probably need to adjust the harness, or select a smaller size. If you look up with your eyes only, you should not see the inside of the helmet. If you do – you need a smaller size of the helmet.
Comfort is much more important than it may seem. If you feel uncomfortable you can’t stay focused on your mission, you may lose vital seconds during tense action, or just grow tired. All of these reduce your efficiency and thus may be fatal.
Selecting a truly comfortable ballistic helmet is a must. Many manufacturers develop innovative padding systems specifically to reduce neck strain and allow for better comfort during prolonged wearing of a helmet.
And if your mission requires you to wear a ballistic helmet all day long, you should choose one that allows your head to breathe. Moisture management systems allow drawing away sweat, and ventilated linings will prevent overheating of your head.
Ballistic helmets offer integrated rails to mount various accessories such as communication devices, night vision goggles, visors, flashlight, camera, or a respirator.
- Picatinny rail is a universal standard rail system that allows mounting a wide range of accessories to the exterior of your helmet.
- MOLLE webbing allows for instant attaching of various objects including pouches, magazines etc. using two vertical strips. The webbing may also include some Velcro pads.
- NVG mount is located on the front side of the helmet and is designed specifically to hold nigh vision, but can be used for some other compatible equipment too.
Ballistic helmet covers
Ballistic helmet cover is a type of gear attached on top of a ballistic helmet to achieve better protection, or add some camouflage. Helmet covers also provide capabilities to attach items to them.
Let’s take Agilite gear as an example. Agilite helmet cover fits a ballistic helmet like glove and offers a range of additional capabilities:
- Color or camouflage added to the helmet
- Secure items
- Protection of the helmet surface to extend its service
- Simplified cable management if you use multiple accessories
- Convenient pouches with quick access
- Velcro pads to attach information panels, items or devices
As you can see Agilite helmet covers are pretty useful and can really extend your tactical capabilities. So, when you buy a ballistic helmet, it is worth spending a few minutes and a few dozens of dollars to choose a ballistic helmet cover too.
Of course, finding the best match for your job among plenty of ballistic helmets on the market is a real challenge. Hopefully, this guide can make the choice less tantalizing. Summing the things up, you should always select a ballistic helmet based on your real tactical needs, but also consider the NIJ ballistic rating of the helmet and materials it is made from. Its type and cut also must match your actual mission. Last but not least is comfort – make sure the helmet sits well on your head and provides all the capabilities you need to attach your equipment and items.