The British called it ‘the coal scuttle’, because it resembled that ornate bucket that servants in the posh houses used to carry small amounts of coal to the bedrooms. It soon became a recognized symbol of evil, as such more iconic in British propaganda posters than even the Pickelhaube, and it has continued to represent the dark side to the present day. It became a ubiquitous symbol of the Nazis, then later the Imperial Storm Troopers, plus the ventilation holes/face guard lugs on either side make the wearer resemble Frankenstein’s Monster in silhouette. Of course, we’re talking about the Stahlhelm, the steel protective helmet designed for the German Army in 1915 by Dr. Friederich Schwerd.
The Germans lagged behind the French and British in issuing steel helmets, most not reaching units until mid-1916, although some assault troops at Verdun got them sooner. The reasons for the delay were the painstaking research into a superior design that would protect the back of the head, the neck and face, and comprehensive material testing to determine the best steel for the application.
The final result was made from costly Martensitic silicon nickel alloy steel, harder than that used by the French or British, and the complex shape required die casting, a process slower and more expensive than those employed by its counterparts, especially the British helmet which could be stamped from a single piece of steel.
Also unlike the French and British patterns, the Stahlhelm came in ten sizes, and weighed about 2 lbs, almost twice as heavy as the French Adrian helmet. It probably wasn’t popular with the troops; the 2.85 lb US M-1941 helmet that I wore in 1968 certainly wasn’t.
But the Stahlhelm was the most protective of the WW1 era, and the design has persisted to the present day, as reflected in the US PASGT, in service from 1983 to 2003, and also the current LWH helmets, which are called ‘Fritzes’ by the troops.
The Stahlhelm wasn’t as natty or military-looking as the French Adrian or as cheap and fast to make as the British Brodie, but it was the best of the bunch at doing what it was supposed to do.
The earlier models of the Stahlhelm could be fitted with a steel face shield that pivoted up or down on the ventilation lugs, but this made the helmet awkward, unbalanced and way too heavy. The later model helmets were painted with camouflage designs and repainted according to terrain or season in accordance with German Army Order II, No. 91 366.
Germany manufactured over 17 million Stahlhelms during WW1, providing them to Austria Hungary (who also made about 675,000 of their own), Bulgaria and in limited quantities to the Ottomans as well.
The Stahlhelm was widely adopted in the inter-war years; the British heavy industry giant Vickers Ltd. even made Stahlhelms for their export clients.
The 1935 and 1942 models of the helmet were in production until the 1970’s in South America and are still in ceremonial use today.