Camouflaged Helmets: More Than Just Tin Hats
Somewhere early on in the world's conflicts, warriors realized just how exposed their heads were and how a sharp blow could not only end their career, but their life. The need for armoured headgear was apparent and thus followed centuries of soldiers sporting increasingly aggressive and outrageous helmets. Designed to instill unease, if not utter fear, in their enemies, helmets became ever-extreme, and just weren't complete without horns, barbs, or stylized demons hammered into the surface.
In the 1500s, came the advent of gunpowder and guns; with them also came the ability to consistently punch lead balls through steel armour, rendering most armoured protection fairly useless. In the absence of anything that could effectively protect the head against this new threat, helmets gave way to ostentatious hats and, between the European renaissance and the onset of the First World War, armoured headgear was replaced with coquettish caps and berets for the troops, as well as extravagant bearskins and shakos for the officer classes. Protection gave way to keeping your head down in battle.
The outbreak of war in 1914 presented commanders with a new and deadly breed of fighting, weapons that were both devastating and accurate over distance. The return to helmets and protective headgear was swift; however, the light steel hats issued to common troops offered little protection, and the trench warfare evolved into a war of attrition, with snipers on both sides becoming increasingly effective. This meant troops needed to be hidden as much as possible to prevent a well-trained and observant sniper from spotting the helmet and placing a high-velocity round through the side of it. Trying to blend into the terrain became as important as protecting your head in the first place.
Initially, modes of camouflage involved fixing real pieces of shrubbery and twigs around the periphery of a helmet using a fabric band. The hope was to convince a sniper—possibly viewing the screen from several hundred yards—that the bits of haphazard foliage were natural formations rather than something with a living human beneath it. Placing undergrowth around the edge of a helmet was soon to be found of only partial use. Head-worn camouflage and protection became far more effective with the introduction of Disruptive Pattern Material (DPM), that could be either painted on a helmet or applied by stretching a fabric 'sock' over the headgear.
Disruptive Pattern Material is designed to create an image similar to the background in a war zone, thereby creating confusion as to whether a particular area is a person or vegetation. The fabric solution saw extensive use in the Vietnam War where the American Military found itself in what became essentially a stealth conflict in dense jungle. Using a four-color disruptive pattern material—composed of green, brown, fawn and black—stretched over their standard issue M1 helmets, American soldiers were able to blend in with the backdrop, increasing their chances against an enemy who knew the terrain.
Advances in thermoplastics and the ability to make cheap, but strong, materials such as Kevlar and Nomex meant that military helmets could be mass-produced at a lower cost. Far more complex in construction than standard steel helmets, this new breed of military headgear offer a high degree of protection from both ballistic (high-speed) impacts as well as low-level concussive forces such as blast shock waves. Adding disruptive patterns to polymer helmets can be done randomly using the hydrographic process. Also known as water transfer printing, this process allows a random pattern to be placed quickly and completely.
For this process, a helmet may be molded in a polymer with an innocuous base color—such as light grey or tan—which forms the camouflage backdrop. The helmet is then sprayed with an activator and taken to a water tank. The tank has a thin polyvinyl film laid over it that is kept in place by surface tension. This film has the desired camouflage form printed on to it. When the helmet is pushed through the film and immersed under water, the micro-thin film adheres to the activated surface. The helmet is removed from the water and allowed to dry, leaving the new pattern firmly stuck to the surface.
The procedure is fast and effective, but it suffers from the one problem from which any permanent solution also suffers: conflicts rarely happen in the same type of terrain! The standard four-color jungle camouflage would stick out rather badly in a grey rock or even a buff desert war zone, turning its imitation qualities into a certain target. Plainly different camouflage is needed for different geography and if an army is painting its helmets, it will need to consider having a replacement kit for dissimilar war zones, and that can be expensive. The replaceable fabric covering suddenly makes a lot of sense.
Fabric helmet covers have been almost universally adopted by the various militaries, because they offer the ability to adapt quickly to changing requirements. The covers can be machine-cut from expanses of pre-colored fabric and made up into the right shape so combat troops can quickly change their camouflage depending upon the type of backdrop they are likely to face. But fabrics offer another advantage, too, in as much as being a netting, they are able to take the additional disruptive material, breaking up the outline of soldiers heads, which can be a further clue to their location.
Military helmets have come a long way over the centuries and have now arrived back at where they started; they are effective protection against the weapons that currently populate the battlefield. Camouflage has evolved with them to become highly technical, with new techniques making methods of manufacture easier and cheaper.