WWI Helmets Protect Against Shock Waves Just as Well as Modern Designs

Summary: Study reveals the French Adrian helmet, a combat helmet from World War 1, performs better than modern designs in protecting from overhead blasts.

Source: Duke University

Biomedical engineers from Duke University have demonstrated that, despite significant advancements in protection from ballistics and blunt impacts, modern military helmets are no better at protecting the brain from shock waves created by nearby blasts than their World War I counterparts. And one model in particular, the French Adrian helmet, actually performed better than modern designs in protecting from overhead blasts.

The research could help improve the blast protection of future helmets through choosing different materials, layering multiple materials of different acoustic impedance, or altering their geometry.

The results appeared online on February 13 in the journal PLOS ONE.

“While we found that all helmets provided a substantial amount of protection against blast, we were surprised to find that the 100-year-old helmets performed just as well as modern ones,” said Joost Op ‘t Eynde, a biomedical engineering PhD student at Duke and first author of the study. “Indeed, some historical helmets performed better in some respects.”

Researchers have only recently begun to study the brain damage a shock wave can cause on its own — and for good reason. Helmets were originally designed to protect from penetrating objects like bullets and shrapnel, and blast waves will kill through pulmonary trauma long before they cause even minor brain damage.

With the advent of body armor, however, soldiers’ lungs are much more protected from such blasts than they used to be. This has caused the incidence of pulmonary trauma following a blast to drop far below that of brain or spine injuries in modern military conflicts, despite the difference in blast tolerance.

While there have been studies that suggest modern helmets provide a degree of protection from shock waves, no currently deployed helmet has been specifically designed for blast protection. And because soldiers today experiencing shock waves while wearing body armor aren’t all that different from soldiers 100 years ago experiencing shock waves while in the trenches, Op ‘t Eynde decided to see if those old designs offered any lessons to be learned.

“This study is, to the best of our knowledge, the first to assess the protective capabilities of these historical combat helmets against blasts,” said Op ‘t Eynde.

Working with Cameron “Dale” Bass, associate research professor of biomedical engineering at Duke, Op ‘t Eynde created a system to test the performance of World War I helmets from the United Kingdom/United States (Brodie), France (Adrian), Germany (Stahlhelm) and a current United States combat variant (Advanced Combat Helmet).

The researchers took turns placing different helmets on a dummy’s head outfitted with pressure sensors at various locations. They then placed the head directly underneath a shock tube, which was pressurized with helium until a membrane wall burst, releasing the gas in a shock wave. The helmets were tested with shock waves of varying strength, each corresponding to a different type of German artillery shell exploding from a distance of one to five meters away.

The amount of pressure experienced at the crown of the head was then compared to brain injury risk charts created in previous studies. While all helmets provided a five-to-tenfold reduction in risk for moderate brain bleeding, the risk for someone wearing a circa-1915 French “Adrian” helmet was less than for any of the other helmets tested, including the modern advanced combat helmet.

“The result is intriguing because the French helmet was manufactured using similar materials as its German and British counterparts, and even had a thinner wall,” said Op ‘t Eynde. “The main difference is that the French helmet had a crest on top of its crown. While it was designed to deflect shrapnel, this feature might also be deflecting shock waves.”

This shows the WW1 and a modern helmet getting shock tested
A French helmet from World War I and a modern helmet sit beneath a shock tube to test how well they protect the dummies underneath from a shock wave. The ridge down the center of the French helmet was designed for deflecting shrapnel, but may well have also helped deflect the shock wave, allowing the helmet to outperform even modern combat helmets. Image is adapted from Duke University news release.

It also might be that, because the pressure sensor was mounted directly under the crest, the crest provided an additional first layer for reflecting the shock wave. And the French helmet did not show the same advantage in pressure sensors at any other location. For locations such as the ears, performance seemed to be dictated by the width of the helmet’s brim and just how much of the head it actually covered.

As for the modern helmet, Op ‘t Eynde theorizes that its layered structure might be important in its performance. Because a shock wave is reflected every time it encounters a new material with a different acoustic impedance, the layered structure of the modern helmet might contribute to its blast protection.

But no matter which helmet was tested, the results clearly indicated that helmets might play an especially important role in protecting against mild blast-induced brain trauma. According to the researchers, this finding alone shows the importance of continuing this type of research to design helmets that can better absorb shock waves from nearby overhead explosions.

“The difference a simple crest or a wider brim can make in blast protection, shows just how important this line of research could be,” said Op ‘t Eynde, who initially came to Duke on a scholarship from the Belgian American Educational Foundation, which was established with funds from American relief efforts in Belgium during World War I. “With all of the modern materials and manufacturing capabilities we possess today, we should be able to make improvements in helmet design that protects from blast waves better than helmets today or 100 years ago.”

About this neuroscience research article

Source:
Duke University
Media Contacts:
Ken Kingery – Duke University
Image Source:
The image is adapted from Duke University news release.

Original Research: Open access
“Primary Blast Wave Protection in Combat Helmet Design: a Historical Comparison between Present Day and World War I”. J. Op ‘t Eynde, A. W. Yu, C. P. Eckersley and C. R. Bass.
PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0228802.

Abstract

Primary Blast Wave Protection in Combat Helmet Design: a Historical Comparison between Present Day and World War I

Since World War I, helmets have been used to protect the head in warfare, designed primarily for protection against artillery shrapnel. More recently, helmet requirements have included ballistic and blunt trauma protection, but neurotrauma from primary blast has never been a key concern in helmet design. Only in recent years has the threat of direct blast wave impingement on the head–separate from penetrating trauma–been appreciated. This study compares the blast protective effect of historical (World War I) and current combat helmets, against each other and ‘no helmet’ or bare head, for realistic shock wave impingement on the helmet crown. Helmets included World War I variants from the United Kingdom/United States (Brodie), France (Adrian), Germany (Stahlhelm), and a current United States combat variant (Advanced Combat Helmet). Helmets were mounted on a dummy head and neck and aligned along the crown of the head with a cylindrical shock tube to simulate an overhead blast. Primary blast waves of different magnitudes were generated based on estimated blast conditions from historical shells. Peak reflected overpressure at the open end of the blast tube was compared to peak overpressure measured at several head locations. All helmets provided significant pressure attenuation compared to the no helmet case. The modern variant did not provide more pressure attenuation than the historical helmets, and some historical helmets performed better at certain measurement locations. The study demonstrates that both historical and current helmets have some primary blast protective capabilities, and that simple design features may improve these capabilities for future helmet systems.

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