Ballistic Helmets, Construction, Testing, and Ratings

So, after one of my gear reviews, I received so much feedback, I decided to clarify/expound. It seems most end users are merely consumers. They want to give you their want as they see it, and they expect you to point their nose at an easily affordable product without any real regard to their needs. This problem is compounded by the fact that unsavory companies will do just that…on the surface…while easily disconnecting said consumer from their money. The problem isn’t always on the behalf of the business. As with anything we purchase, we know that with quality comes monetary compensation, so where do we draw the line and how do we spot these companies? That is easy my friend, it is called education.

For today’s entertainment, I will discuss ballistic helmets, how they are rated, and why some companies offer them at a different price break. We will also talk about the simple solution for finding a good helmet that won’t break the bank.

First of all, I am no “expert.” I am mostly just experienced and educated. Having procured, tested, evaluated, and taken to combat many different systems, I have learned a lot through a few decades. While I didn’t care for General Krulak as our Commandant during the time, he came up with the “Commandant’s Warfighting Lab” and this brought about many technological advancements. We won’t go too far into that or my current job with the federal government, we will just say I know some people who know some people. You can always contact me directly so I can expand my rolodex. I am called an expert, but I do not refer to myself as such. I am always learning, hence one of my most recent sessions with an aircraft parts manufacturer on Kevlar usage with epoxy, but we shall save this for another article on plate armor.

So let’s talk about ballistic helmets for a bit shall we? Helmets have always been made of steel, that is, prior to the development of the PASGT (Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops) program of the 1980s. Steel helmets and bulky flak jackets. Heavy steel and plastic on your head and ballistic nylon/fiberglass plates that don’t stop bullets very well on your chest. With the development of PASGT, a lightweight helmet concept was created. With a body armor garment, the materials, to be wearable over long periods, should be flexible, a few plated areas aside. For ballistic protection to the head, this needs to be rigid for obvious reasons. With PASGT, it was decided to take the same armor used in vest armor and make it rigid. This was made possible by pressing together nineteen layers of Kevlar fiber in a phenolic resin. Imagine making objects out of fiberglass using fibers to hold the resin. As teenagers, we used wool blankets, soaked in resin and stretched across chicken wire to make speaker boxes. This essentially what is happening here. Now just stop and think about this concept. Soft body armor impregnated with resin. This is the same concept that is in play with almost all modern helmets today.

If all modern helmets use this concept, why are there so large of a difference between performance and what does NIJ have to say about all of this? – I am glad you asked, because there are a few answers out there. Let’s start with the aramid (bullet resistant) soft fibers. Just as vests have different versions of fiber weave, fiber content, number of layers, bulk of a specific weave due to strand cross-section, different flex (affecting BFD- or Back Face Deformation), heat tolerances, moisture tolerances, shelf life, etc….So now does the vest manufactured out of these materials. This is where first line manufacturing has its obvious advantage. This is going to be the biggest difference between all of the helmets in terms of ballistic ability. Let’s stop to ponder this one. A company develops a proprietary blend of materials and uses different weaves and fiber diameters in different layers to ensure ballistic as well as fragmentation resistance. They manufacture these fibers and weaves into fabric sheets custom cut and preformed to the mold so that the layers set uniformly during the curing process. Compare that to an overseas manufacturing company who cuts up a bunch of old out of date ballistic vests that have been used by a department for years without a quality assurance team to certify that they haven’t been exposed to the elements, been properly taken care of, stored etc. They wait and cut the excess off after the mold because they use a sheet molding process and they want to squeeze every penny out of these cheap batch-purchased vests. But both are certified fabrics under NIJ (National Institute of Justice) protocol, right?

You have now seen just a fraction of the overall problem. But I will continue nonetheless.

So let’s move on the resin portion. What resins are used? In the early days, it was a phenolic resin, and then fiberglass. Nowadays, in the situations listed above, the first line stateside manufacturer uses different resins (mostly advanced epoxies) and differently heat cures them while pressing the helmet fibers at millions of pounds per square inch. This is similar to why we heat cure metals to a different hardness throughout a sword or knife blade. . It ensures strength, rigidity, and give at all of the right places and ensures the helmet will perform properly when impacted with a bullet. Think about the way that a knife acts as it strikes a surface, or the way a well-engineered car behaves on sustaining a high-speed impact. Crumple zones, rigid passenger cage, semi-flexible harnesses and airbags. How does the cheaply made helmet do this? Fiberglass resin impregnated through the press. Some are heat cured, but not for the purposes above. Only to speed up the cure, after all, time is money.

So now we have two standards of helmet, but we have the shells built. One to a higher standard, one to a lesser. But if they will both stop a 9mm, they are both equal, right? WRONG!!!! We still have some pretty big deals left.

Pay attention to this: The NIJ helmet standard does NOT just include ballistic testing!

You read that right. That is one of my pet peeves. But let’s start with that anyways. Company X wants to pimp out their new Chinese sourced helmets, or helmets made in their basement. They have Joe Schmoe laboratories shoot at it with a .44 Mag and that is it, right? Nope, not even close. They have to be batch tested. You see, materials vary from run to run and those differences could cause someone their life. A minimum of TWO helmets must be tested for ballistic penetration and one helmet has to be tested for ballistic impact attenuation. The penetration tests will be with certified headforms at prescribed distances with chronographed rounds for both sagittal penetration and coronal penetration. A person will not be holding the weapons being fired. The second helmet has to be tested after being submerged underwater for between two to four hours. Not to mention there are specifics on how far the bullet may protrude causing back-face deformation (BFD) on helmets. This is why they use a sheet of aluminum that is only half a MM thick as a “witness” plate during these tests. Have you seen helmet manufacturer of ANY helmet sold by these new “start-up” companies that shows this? Nope, neither have I. Joe Schmoe labs shoots a few rounds from their personally owned handgun and calls it official. More than one helmet? “What for?” they ask. Exactly.

So let’s say the helmet passes a legitimate penetration test, which is unlikely…that means it is good right? Not necessarily. What if the kinetic energy from the helmet striking the helmet is enough to break your neck? Basically you are killed whether you were wearing a helmet or not, only in this case, with a few hundred dollars less in your back pocket and a higher risk of dehydration/heat injury. This is why in order to meet the bare-bones basic NIJ standard for helmets, a ballistic impact attenuation test must be performed, and using the same caliber/loads/ etc as on the penetration test. I have not seen many helmet manufacturers pass this test. When called out on this protocol, most of the fly-by-night manufacturers will call names, ban users, delete blog posts, etc. None of them will invite you to tour their assembly lines.

Now let’s talk about a different aspect of ballistic helmets: the ability to protect your head in non-ballistic events. Now I don’t get shot at a hell of a lot more than I have ever been shot at. So, do I rappel? Hell yes I do! Do I drive with night vision goggles on? Yup! Have I ever been hit in the head with a pugil stick while wearing a helmet? Yes. Have I ever fallen while wearing a helmet? Yes again. So why do I bring all of this up? Your helmet should protect you against traumatic brain injury (TBI) as well. You took off your bump helmet and put on a ballistic helmet because of an additional threat, so why should you now not be protected against the hazards that your bump helmet protected you from in the first place? You shouldn’t. This is where the big manufacturers test in excess of the attenuation protocol. Their customers will be in rollover accidents, helicopter crashes as passengers, wearing NVGs with and without counterweighted battery packs for long periods (neck fatigue) and then get into accidents. Since this is the single-most feature you are likely to need, you should include it into your purchase decision. A copy of an Ops-Core Occ-Dial is not the same as an actual Occ-dial. A copy of the Revision MSS is not the same as an actual MSS. You can only copy the visual aesthetics. Trust me, a small manufacturing plant is not going to use multiple density polymer products when they can just use plastic.

I have seen the assembly lines of a few of the big boys. Wow. They are top notch. After signing non-disclosure agreements so I could be jailed if I was just attempting to obtain trade secrets, the representatives showed me the legitimate side of business and manufacturing. Everything is made in house. This allows quality control and batch testing from the very beginning.

So how do you know if a helmet is any good? Let me give you the surefire way to tell and it doesn’t take much brainwork or research. Ask for the National Stock Number or NSN. So far I have caught only one company who lied about this. They provided me with an NSN for a competitor’s product. Well, I ordered using the NSN through my procurement process so they actually gave the business to their competitor. So, once you have the NSN, use Google and look it up to make sure it matches the helmet that it was provided for. The nice thing about having an NSN means that it passed more stringent testing protocol to allow it to be used by government personnel and purchased through regular procurement channels like the GSA (General Services Administration). This is by far the easiest and most fool-proof way to purchase a good helmet. Off the top of my head I think of the really good manufacturers: MSA (Mine Safety Appliances), Gentex, Ops-Core, Revision, and Crye. All of these manufacturers provide high quality helmets directly to the US military and are all tried, tested, and proven in combat, not just in someone’s backyard.

But you want to save money. Well, what is your head worth to you? I am quite attached to mine, pun intended. If you want a less expensive option, Revision makes a certified helmet in low, med, and high cut configurations and it only costs $370! Granted, you have to add on all of the tacticool stuff after the fact, but you get a legitimate ballistic and TBI protective helmet for less than the heaps that the junk-peddlers are selling. As you spend more money, you get lighter weight materials, more ballistic certifications, less bulk, and more comfortable suspension systems. You also get some pretty cool looking things too. Don’t be so quick to buy a helmet just because it comes with a night vision mount when you have never even used night vision before in your life. You can always purchase they $50 accessory after you spend the $3k on a decent set of NVGs. Until then, you are just a poser.

These are my rants. Enjoy, and purchase with an educated mind, not wondering what you will look like in your next selfie.

-Jason Bernhardsen

This was a discussion from P&S-Gear on Facebook.


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