Most folks focus on vests first when it comes to ballistic protection, but the head should not be neglected. Obviously your brain is one of your most important organs, one of the most sensitive to blunt trauma – and the body part most likely to be exposed when you are behind cover!
A helmet is not a “discreet” piece of gear, and not appropriate for everyday use, but helmets are much-needed ballistic protection in a bad to worst-case situation, e.g., a homeowner in a Hurricane Katrina type situation, or a patrol officer rolling up on a potential shooting. In that kind of situation you would probably prefer that bad guys see that you are armored and a “hard target”, in order to deter an attack. Most importantly, you would (we hope!) be behind cover with just your head showing – so wouldn’t it be smart to protect what is most exposed?
Helmets are also excellent for lessening blunt trauma, though you should be aware that any impact on the head is a serious threat that causes some level of injury – no armor makes you invulnerable. The blunt trauma protection of a helmet is often not given enough weight. Think about it – in a high-threat confrontation you would often be coming under fire and moving as fast as possible, perhaps in the dark. Very likely you would be hitting trees, walls, cars, the cover you are diving for, etc., etc. in your haste to get to cover. Any helmet (even a bike helmet) is desirable so that crashing into hard objects is less of an impact on the brain, possibly saving you from being knocking disoriented or unconscious.
Helmets are excellent ballistic protection from pistol-caliber threats (and Fragmentation) but, sorry to say, rifle protection helmets are not on the market. Traditional mil spec PASGT helmets stop Level II threats (9mm pistol / .357 Magnum) and the latest mil spec, the Advanced Combat Helmet (aka ACH aka MICH) stops Level III-A threats (9mm sub-machine-gun / .44 Magnum). Most people focus on this small increase in ballistic protection of the ACH over PASGT, but what is much more important is the big improvement in blunt trauma protection.
The traditional PASGT Kevlar Helmet has a leather and nylon suspension system that is not particularly comfortable, and provides very little blunt trauma protection. But the latest mil spec for the ACH is a pad system inside the helmet (3/4th inch or 1″ thick / 19 – 25mm) that absorbs a lot of shock that would otherwise be transmitted to the skull.
If you already have an older PASGT not to worry! You can upgrade with a PASGT Retrofit Kit to bring the old PASGT up to the ACH standard for blunt trauma cushioning.
If $70 is not in the budget, there is a very inexpensive accessory called the Parachutist Foam Impact Liner that is almost as good. Airborne troops used to get a 1/4″ (6mm) thick pad which the Air Force research found is roughly 70% as good as the ACH pad system. We would recommend that as a minimum upgrade to older PASGT helmets.
Either way, there is one upgrade to vintage PASGTs that is mandatory to keep the helmet secure, and prevent bobbing of the helmet when you are moving. This is replacing the old 2 point chin strap with a 3 or 4 point system that connects at the back.
Helmet Buying Checklist
1. PROTECTION – whether it stops Level II or Level III-A threats is less of a factor than whether it has an ACH blunt trauma pad system. Personally I’d rather have the old PASGT Level II protection – with the ACH pads retro-fitted in – than a newer Level III-A helmet without the ACH Blunt Trauma Pads.
2. COVERAGE vs. ERGONOMICS – the ACH shape has no brim, and is cut short on the back and sides for better hearing, and better ergonomics in the prone position. The PASGT has a brim, and is longer back and sides for more coverage (photos).
You can get Level III-A helmets in the PASGT shape, so it really depends on your situation and personal preference as to which is better for you–e.g., maximum protection in a vehicle, or for a non-combatant – go for full coverage with the PASGT shape. For a “trigger puller” who needs to go prone – ACH.
3. COLOR is not a determining factor as you can spray paint the helmet, or put a cloth helmet cover on. We do recommend Tan as a good all around color, as solid Black can tend to stick out.
4. FIT AND STABILITY is critical. The chin strap must be connected at the back as well as the sides. The helmet must fit snugly and comfortably even with no chin strap. Get a good head measurement to ensure a good fit.
The bottom line – in a bad situation you want ballistic and blunt trauma protection on your head. You have two eyes, two arms, two legs, and two lungs – but only one brain, so keep it safe!
Yours truly, – Nick, Manager BulletProofME.com