Article originally published in:
Military Heritage magazine, April 2002

Militaria: Stahlhelm, the Steel Helmets of the German Army
          By Peter Suciu

One of the most recognizable symbols of the Second World War, the German helmet has become a popular collector’s item for military buffs

         In the annals of warfare in the 20th century the modern combat helmet has easily become one of the most recognizable pieces of equipment used on the battlefield. It is hard to think of the American G.I. on the beaches of Normandy or island hopping in the Pacific without the trusty “steel pot,” and equally identifiable is the German steel helmet or “stahlhelm,” a component of the German soldier that has been seen in countless books, films and TV shows.
         With its roots based on the steel helmet from the First World War, a helmet that actually replaced the older Imperial German spiked helmet or “pickelhaubes,” the German military helmet of the Second World War could arguably be one of the most familiar symbols of the conflict. Today a thriving collector’s market even exists for these military war relics, and while the costs have become almost staggering at times a genuine stalhem can even be readily obtainable.

Evolution of the Stahlhelm
         The horrors of trench warfare in World War I led the combatant nations to develop armored protection for the soldiers’ heads in the form of steel helmets. France and England were the first nations to create true modern steel helmets while Germany followed suit in 1916 with large and fairly heavy helmet compared to their opponents. The result was regarded to be a superior design that offered reliable protection from enemy small arms and yet was reasonably comfortable to wear for all but extended periods of time. The biggest downside was the helmet’s increased weight but that was the price the soldiers in the trenches paid for the protection it offered.
         This helmet, the M16 or model 1916, was further refined with an improved chinstrap assembly and gradually replaced by the M17/18, which remained in service in post-war Germany. Additional variations of these models also saw service, including those designed and produced in Austria by Germany’s ally. This article cannot attempt to cover these further varieties of helmets from the Great War but there are numerous resources available for further reading.

The M35 Steel Helmet
         German military planners preparing for the next war in the 1930s knew that the conflict would be different and that modern infantryman would need to move faster and be more mobile. As a result the M17/18 was replaced with the M35 or model 1935 helmet. This stahlhelm utilized a newly designed M1931 helmet liner that further aided in making the protective device comfortable to the wearer, and this liner system stayed in service with the German and Austrian armies until the 1980s.
         The rounded dome, neck guard and visor were shortened when compared to the WWI varieties, but the helmet retained the same basic look of the earlier models. The overall silhouette and profile of the M35 was drastically smaller but the familiar shape still offered excellent protection to the wearer’s head.
         The liner was held in place by three aluminum rivets, one in the rear of the helmet and one at each temple. While the M16 and M17/18 helmets had large steel lugs that were used to allow for the addition of a steel plate to the helmet for added protection, the designers of the M35 felt this feature was unnecessary and thus the new model didn’t include this feature. Venting, which had been provided through the lugs on the earlier helmets, was accomplished through two brushing vents where the lugs would have been. On the M35 these vents were finished off with a grommets that gave the model a well-crafted appearance.
         The liner itself was constructed of a single aluminum or other light metal band that supported a spring system to help aid in shock and bounce of the helmet. This system held a single piece of soft leather with eight individual “fingers,” each with a set of ventilation holes. A heavier leather buckle-type chinstrap was connected to a D-ring on the liner band. German efficiency also dictated that unlike the contemporary helmets of the period that specific sizes would created instead of a “one size attempts to fit all.” In total there were five standard sizes produced.
         These M35 stahlhelms were issued to virtually every branch of the German armed forces and were painted with military flat colors according the branch of service – with a huge variety of variations that can only briefly be touched upon. The standard army colors were a gray/green that matched the German uniform while the Luftwaffe were issued with a helmet that was more of gray/blue color.
         However the primary defining aspect of the M35 helmet remains the use of decals to represent the branch of service. After 1933 Germany began using the national colors in the form of a red, white and black shield that was placed on the right side of the helmet for Wehrmacht (army), Luftwaffe (air force) and Kriegsmarine (navy) as well as non-military helmets. An army shield with a silver-white eagle was placed on the left side of the helmet, while the in-flight Luftwaffe eagle was used on their helmets. Additionally the navy shield was almost identical to the army shield but the eagle was gold rather than silver.
         In almost all cases police and SS units did not use the national colors shield but instead had a party shield with a red field, white center and black swastika – a design similar to the Nazi party flag – in its place. SS units typically had silver-white shield with a black outline and black SS (lighting) runes, while the polizei (or police units) had a black shield with a silver eagle and wreath. It is worth noting that in most cases the SS runes were on the right side, while the Police eagle was on the left – thus while the party shield appears on both helmets it is reversed. Occasionally helmets may have been reused and thus the runes of an SS helmet may appear on the opposite side, but this should be considered extremely rare and is not the norm.
         Many additional variations of decals for political organizations, specialized military units and other groups were also used. Decals in general were primarily used most widely with the M35 helmets, and were for the most part produced in mass before the beginning of hostilities in 1939.

The M40 and M42 Helmets
          Once war broke out the German stahlhelm underwent the first of a few minor changes beginning in 1940. The first was mostly a cosmetic change in the end result but actually reduced the number of procedures in the production. The vent brushings were omitted and instead a punched embossed vent hole was incorporated into the design. At a quick glance the helmets are almost identical.
          The other change to affect the M40 or model 1940 helmets was in how decals were displayed. With many German soldiers in the field it was deemed unnecessary to include decals on both sides of the helmet, especially as the red stood out in the national colors and swastika shields. Many combat veterans had even been reported to scrape off the shields on their M35 helmets.
          Thus there are those helmets of the M35 variety that are known as “double decal” for having decals on each side of the helmet, as there are significantly fewer known M40 “double decal” helmets. While there have been a few that were issued many M40 helmets with two decals often prove to have a national or swastika shield that was added at a later date.
          A more radical change occurred to the stahlhelm with the M42 or model 1942 helmet. As Albert Speer began to oversee the German war effort all aspects of production were simplified where possible and the reliable helmet was no exception. The most obvious change is that this helmet had no rolled edges around the rim of the helmet and instead the edge was raw and flared outward. The manufacturing procedures were therefore greatly reduced again.
          As expected the use of decals was also further reduced. Many M42 helmets were issued without decals completely and it is almost unheard of to find a “double decal” M42 helmet although there are many “single decal” helmets of this variety. It is also not uncommon to come across M42 helmets with inferior liners and chin straps and even replacement parts from other helmets. Collectors should be wary however of mismatched parts as this could be a sign of post-war restoration rather than the result of war efforts.

Additional Variations and Captured Helmets
          There are numerous “variations” of the German stahlhelm, and while many are more common many others are extremely rare. During the early era of the Third Reich WWI era steel helmets were reissued, complete with new paint, fitted with the model 1931 liners and even appropriate decals. These helmets are known to collectors as “transitional,” and were a temporary holdover until the introduction of the M35 helmet.
          Lighter weight M35 styled helmets were provided to both police and fireman during the Third Reich, with fireman helmets having an addition of an aluminum comb over the top of the dome, These helmets are also recognizable in that they have a more squared off rim and four rivets supporting the liner instead of three, along with two sets of “salt shaker” vents on each side. These helmets were usually issued in a flat black color and occasionally with decals.
          Two main varieties of helmets were also produced in mass numbers for the Luftschutz, or anti-aircraft personnel. The first is a Luftschutz combat style, also used Luftwaffe ground troops in large numbers, and it is identical to the M35 or M40 varieties but with the addition of a bead running completely around the base of the dome. These helmets were also often issued to military police units and the main determination is in the placement of the decal. Luftwaffe and police units would have the standard decal placement on the side while the Luftschutz had a special large “winged” decal that went over the brow.
          The other style of Luftschutz helmet is sometimes referred to as the “gladiator variety” as it resembles a helmet worn by Roman gladiators. The dome is rounder and the neck guard and visor are larger, while the material is lighter than the combat variety. It also has a less flexible liner system and uses the twin sets of “salt shaker” vents. Three main variations exist of these helmets. The first is a three-piece system with a bead running around the helmet and a two-piece – either welded or riveted – visor-neckpiece, while there are also one-piece visor-neckpiece helmets and additionally a late model helmet without the bead that is one single piece of steel. The other noticeable difference is that the late model also has four rivets supporting the liner instead of the three rivets of the earlier variety.
          One of the most popular German stahlhelms of WWII is also one of the most rare and that is the paratrooper helmet worn throughout the war. The profile is somewhat similar with the M35/40 helmet essentially being produced without a neckguard or visor. These M37/38 or model 1937 and model 1938 paratrooper helmets also contained a more heavily padded liner and chinstrap. As there were army and Luftwaffe paratroopers, or “fallschirmjägers,” there are helmets with decals for both services.
          Germany’s early victories in Poland and Western Europe, as well as pre-war annexations of Austria and Czechoslovakia, meant that the Third Reich had obtained a great number of foreign helmets. Many of these, including those from the Czech army, were reissued to police and Luftschutz units in the early stages of the war. As the conflict continued captured Russian helmets, as well as those of their allies in Italy were also reissued even to front line soldiers. It is therefore possible to find French, Dutch, Danish and other military helmets with decals of the armed forces of Nazi Germany. However, as with any German helmet many of these could be post-war “improvements” by dubious dealers. It should be noted for example that most of the reissued Czech helmets were repainted green on top of their original brown color before being issued to military police units.
          It is also worth mentioning that a M44 helmet was designed as early as 1942 and may have gone into production in 1945 had the war not ended. However the East German military later used this design and while these helmets were once highly sought after by collectors because of their rarity in the West, they can be found and purchased for extremely reasonable prices today. Still, while the designs are arguably Wehrmacht, these helmets were all produced after the end of the war and therefore should not be considered WWII era collectibles.
          For collectors variations are especially popular as they are rare examples that stand out in any collection. “Some of the most popular helmets are those associated with the infamous ‘Waffen SS’ of Nazi Germany,” explains Brian Bell, helmet collector and Website creator of “These include single or double decal variations. Others include helmets associated with rare or obscure units that played an elite role in some part of German military history. Early or scarce pre-war ‘transitional’ helmets continue to gain in value and collector desirability.”

Camouflage and Veteran Helmets
          Another variety of the aforementioned paint variations is that of battlefield camouflage by front line and support troops. After learning their terrible lessons during the winter of 1941/42 the German army was better prepared in the following years when it came to providing the appropriate attire and equipment to its soldiers in the field. Many varieties of paint patterns can also be found as a result.
          While camouflage covers were produced in large numbers the German army was not quick to utilize camouflage as quickly as the SS units and therefore most helmet covers were issued to the Waffen SS units and are thus extremely rare. It was more common for German army units to paint the helmets or to even add chicken wire or other netting.
          White wash was utilized in winter climates although this was usually removed in fair weather, while the Afrika Korp often to have their steel helmets painted a desert tan to match the terrain. No official Afrika Korp decal has been confirmed to exist but it was not uncommon for soldiers to have an Afrika Korp symbol stenciled on the side of their helmets. M35 and M40 as well as M37 paratrooper helmets are among the most common Afrika Korp helmets, as few M42 helmets would have been shipped to North Africa before the close of that theater of operations. However tan-painted M42 helmets may have seen service in Greece, Sicily and even in the Balkans – and there is speculation that un-issued helmets may have been factory painted but never shipped out. Whether this “recent” find is a previously forgotten stash of relics or just an example of an attempt to pass a dubious item as a collectible is left up to the end collector.
          Two other variations that must be touched upon are the “veteran” helmet that was obtained by a G.I. in Western Europe during the final stages of WWII and the more morbid variety that possibly was worn when a soldier fell in battle and possibly was with him in the ground. “Two popular areas of collecting that hold active ‘niches’ in the German helmet collecting community include those represented as ‘battle field damaged’ or ‘veteran painted’ helmets,” describes Bell. Battlefield damaged helmets include those dug from the ground or excavated from old cemeteries, bunkers and battlefields as well as helmets that have bullet holes, gashes, and damage resulting from direct combat. Veteran painted helmets include those that have had their exteriors hand painted with unit mottos, European city locations, and battles fought by the American veteran who acquired the helmet as a souvenir.”

Insight for Collecting the Stahlhelm
          German helmets have been a popular collectable item for military buffs almost since the war ended but in part due to the resurgence of interest in the Second World War and with the popularity of films like Saving Private Ryan and HBO’s series Band of Brothers the value of the helmets has gone up considerably.
          “WWII is the biggest event of the 20th century,” describes Karl Kithier, a military relics collector who has specialized in helmets for more than twenty years. “Nothing exemplifies the ‘enemy’ or German soldiers like his helmet, as a ‘trophy of war.’”
          The growing interest in this area of the collector’s market, along with sales on the Internet, has meant that many fakes and replicas are showing up in greater numbers and would-be buyers should be wary, especially of supposedly ‘rare’ or ‘one of kind’ pieces. Even finding a good example of a German helmet requires research but there are many outlets for those looking to purchase a real piece of history.
          “With the general public’s ever growing interest in WWII history, many relics from Nazi Germany have become hot items that can command high prices when sold in online consumer auctions, military collectible auctions, or at gun and military relic shows,” adds Bell. “The values of these items have kept up with the pace of collector demand and many WWII German helmets continue to escalate in price.”
          Where a “double-decal” German helmet may have easily been had for under $20 after the war ended may today cost nearly $1800 or $1900. Especially rare and often “faked” are Waffen SS helmets and it is unfortunately not uncommon to find SS helmets with near mint condition decals on otherwise battle scarred pieces. These are obviously post-war “improvements” that actually serve to lower the price. It is especially important to note that the difference between helmets with a single decal versus one with two decals could mean hundreds and hundreds of dollars and thus the reasons for many fakes flooding the market.
          Therefore it is especially important for collectors to know what they are buying and not to be easily deceived. Look for proper helmet setup for one thing, as mentioned previously it is especially uncommon to find M42 helmets with the “double decals” so you should be wary of a dealer selling them as original – and furthermore extra wary of his other hot bargains. Reputable dealers would not risk trying to pass off a single fake along with numerous authentic pieces so you might be best advised to walk away from anyone who has questionable articles.
          Bell adds that even the best and most experienced collectors are deceived now and then and that the would-be collector can protect himself or herself. “It is worth knowing what you are buying before you spend the money. Invest in books and reference texts that photograph and describe known and authenticated originals. Collectors should study and know the difference between a common item and the ultra rare.”
          Both Bell and Kithier agree that you should ask for a return policy in the event the helmet turns out to be a fake, and that you shouldn’t worry about questioning where the helmet originated. But most importantly you should examine all the details on the helmet to look for artificial aging, repainting or replaced decals.
          And Kithier sums it up best by emphasizing that you must understand that there is more to knowing German helmets than you think. “It takes many years to know what you are doing. People with big egos get burned.” As with history research is extremely important and considering that many helmets command prices well over $1000 it is worth the time to determine if you are buying the genuine article.

  • Sources and further reading:
    Stahlhelm: Evolution of the German Steel Helmet
    Floyd R. Tubbs, With Robert W. Clawson
    Format: Paperback, 117pages; October 2000
    ISBN: 0873386779
    Publisher: Kent State University Press

    The History of the German Steel Helmet, 1916-1945
    Ludwig Baer
    Format: Hardcover, 2nd ed., 448papes; January 1985
    ISBN: 0912138319
    Publisher: R. James Bender Publishing

    German Helmets 1933-1945
    T.J. Goodapple and R.J. Weinand
    Format: Paperback, 140 pages; June 1981
    ISBN: 0685723364
    Publisher: Published by the authors

    SS Helmets: A Collector's Guide
    Kelly Hicks
    Format: Paperback, 92 pages Vol 1; January 1, 1993
    ISBN: 0962488356
    Publisher: Reddick Enterprises