By Peter Suciu

In the annals of 20th-century warfare the modern combat helmet has easily become one of the most recognizable pieces of battlefield equipment. It is hard to think of the American GI 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 World War I, a helmet that actually replaced the older Imperial German spiked helmet or pickelhaube, the German military helmet of World War II could arguably be one of the most familiar symbols of the conflict. Today a thriving collector’s market exists for these military war relics, and while the costs have become almost staggering at times a genuine stahlhelm can 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. France and England were the first to create true modern steel helmets, while Germany followed suit in 1916 with a large and fairly heavy helmet. The result was regarded to be a superior design that offered reliable protection from enemy small arms, yet was reasonably comfortable to wear for all but extended periods. The biggest down side 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 was gradually replaced by the M17/18, which remained in service in postwar 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 in the 1930s preparing for the next war knew that the conflict would be different and that modern infantrymen 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 were 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. Although the M16 and M17/18 helmets had large steel lugs right and left that were used to allow for the addition of a steel plate to the helmet for more protection, the designers of the M35 felt this feature was unnecessary. 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 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 ease the 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 other contemporary helmets, specific sizes of the M35 would be produced so as not to create a “one size attempts to fit all.” Thus M35s came in five sizes.

A Waffen SS M-35 helmet.
A Waffen SS M-35 helmet.

These M35 stahlhelme were issued to virtually every branch of the German armed forces and were painted with military flat colors according to the branch of service—with a huge number 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 a helmet that was more of gray/blue color.

The primary defining aspect of the M35 helmet, however, 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 placed on the right side of the helmet for Wehrmacht (army), Luftwaffe (air force), and Kriegsmarine (navy) as well as nonmilitary helmets. An army shield with a silver-white eagle was placed on the left side, while the in-flight Luftwaffe eagle was used on Luftwaffe helmets. The navy shield was almost identical to the army shield but the eagle was gold rather than silver.

Many police and SS units did not use the national colors’ shield on the right side but instead had a red shield with a white center and black swastika—a design similar to the Nazi party flag—in its place. With either the national colors or the swastika shield all SS units had a silver-white shield with a black outline and black SS (lightning) runes, while the polizei (or police units) had a black shield with a silver eagle and wreath.

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 mass-produced before the beginning of hostilities in 1939.

M40 and M42 Helmets

After war broke out the German stahlhelm underwent the first of a few minor changes beginning in 1940. The first was mostly a cosmetic change 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 decal display. Many German soldiers in the field felt it unnecessary to include decals on both sides of the helmet, especially because the red stood out in the national colors and swastika shields. Many combat veterans reportedly even scraped off the shields on their M35 helmets.

Many M35 helmets are known as “double decal” for having decals on each side of the helmet, but significantly fewer M40s are this way. Although a few double-decal M40 helmets were issued, many simply had a national or swastika shield added later.

A more radical change occurred to the M42 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; instead the edge was raw and flared outward. The manufacturing procedures were therefore greatly reduced again.

In addition, the use of decals was also further reduced. Many M42 helmets were issued without decals at all and it is almost unheard of to find a double-decal M42 helmet. It is also not uncommon to come across M42 helmets with inferior liners and chinstraps and even with replacement parts from other helmets. Collectors should be wary of mismatched parts, however; this could be a sign of postwar restoration rather than the result of war efforts.

A helmet with some battlefield camouflage.
A helmet with some battlefield camouflage.

Additional Variations and Captured Helmets

There are numerous “variations” of the German stahlhelm; some are common and some 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 issued to both police and firemen during the Third Reich, with firemen’s helmets having the addition of an aluminum comb over the top of the dome. These helmets are also recognizable because 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 antiaircraft personnel. The first is a Luftschutz combat style, also used by 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” for its resemblance to 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: One is a three-piece system with a bead running around the helmet and a two-piece—either welded or riveted—visor-neckpiece; the second is a one-piece visor-neckpiece system; and last is a late-model helmet without the bead that is a 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 stahlhelme of WWII is also one of the rarest: the paratrooper helmet worn throughout the war. The profile is somewhat similar to the M35/40 helmet but without a neckguard or visor. These M37 paratrooper helmets also contained a more heavily padded liner and chinstrap. Because there were both army and Luftwaffe paratroopers, or fallschirmjäger, there are helmets with decals for both services.

Germany’s early victories in Poland and Western Europe, as well as prewar 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 an M44 helmet was designed as early as 1942 and might have gone into production in 1945 had the war not ended. 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 very 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 collectibles.

For collectors, variations are especially popular because being rare they 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 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 prewar ‘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 as quick to utilize camouflage as the SS units. 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.

A Luftwaffe paratrooper helmet of WWII.
A Luftwaffe paratrooper helmet of WWII.

Whitewash was utilized in winter climates although this was usually removed in fair weather, while the Afrika Korps often had its steel helmets painted a desert tan to match the terrain. No official Afrika Korps decal has been confirmed to exist, but it was not uncommon for soldiers to have an Afrika Korps symbol stenciled on the side of their helmets. M35 and M40 as well as M37 paratrooper helmets are among the most common Afrika Korps helmets because 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 the Balkans—and there is speculation that unissued 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 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,” says 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 collectible item for military buffs almost since the war ended, but in part due to the resurgence of interest in WWII and with the popularity of WWII films the value of the helmets has gone up considerably.

“WWII is the biggest event of the 20th century,” exclaims Karl Kithier, a military relics collector who has specialized in helmets for more than 20 years. “Nothing exemplifies the ‘enemy’ or German soldier 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 a 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 online, or through 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.”

A double-decal German helmet may have easily been had for under $20 immediately after the war, but may today cost nearly $800 or $900. 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 postwar “improvements” that actually serve to lower the price. Note that a double-decal helmet can be priced hundreds of dollars above a similar single-decal one, a reason for fakes coming onto 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. As mentioned previously it is especially uncommon to find M42 helmets with double decals, so you should be wary of a dealer selling them as original. Be especially wary of “hot bargains.” Reputable dealers would not risk trying to pass off a single fake along with numerous authentic pieces so you are best advised to walk away from anyone who has questionable articles.

Bell adds that even the most experienced collectors are deceived now and then, but that would-be collectors can protect themselves. “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.

Kithier adds that there is more to understanding German helmets than one would think. “It takes years to know what you are doing. People with big egos get burned.” Research is important and considering that many helmets command prices well over $1,000 it is worth the time to determine if you are buying the genuine article.

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