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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Bashford Dean and the Development of Helmets and Body Armor during World War I

The industrialization and mechanization of war in the early twentieth century, including increased use of artillery, tanks, and machine guns and the advent of trench warfare, resulted in an unprecedented number of killed and wounded right from the outset of World War I in 1914. The large number of head wounds suffered by combatants soon made it apparent that metal helmets, although long out of use, were absolutely necessary on the modern battlefield, and that other forms of armor also should be explored. Soon after the United States entered the war, on April 6, 1917, the government turned to Dr. Bashford Dean (1867–1928), Curator of Arms and Armor at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, to address this situation. Dean was commissioned as a Major of Ordnance in charge of the Armor Unit and also was made Chairman of the Committee on Helmets and Body Armor of the National Research Council. Working from the basis of his knowledge of historical armor, Dean made a thorough study of armor used to defend against firearms from the Renaissance to his own time and applied that information to contemporary battlefield conditions of the Great War. Then, in conjunction with the Museum’s armorer Daniel Tachaux (1857–1928) and other members of his staff, he produced a series of prototype helmets and various forms of body armor to protect U.S. troops. In addition to his Museum duties and other commitments during 1917 and 1918, Dean traveled frequently to Washington, D.C., for meetings and also made trips to London and Paris to confer with members of the general staff of the British and French military.

Dean’s principal challenge was to devise a helmet that would provide superior protection, while being light and comfortable enough to wear for extended periods of time, and which could be efficiently and economically mass produced. By 1916, Germany had developed a helmet—the iconic Stahlhelm (literally “steel helmet”)—that met all these requirements, so Dean faced the additional challenge of coming up with an equally effective design that would not be confused with German helmets on the battlefield. American soldiers at the time were wearing the standard British Brodie helmet, patented in 1915 and soon nicknamed the Tin Hat for its shallow bowl and broad straight brim. While not nearly as effective as the German helmet, it provided adequate protection to the top of the head and, due to its shallow profile, had the advantage of being easy to manufacture.

Designed in June 1917, American Helmet Model No. 2 was Dean’s first fully realized attempt to improve on the existing German and British types (2013.581a). This hand-forged example is one of only a few surviving nonballistic prototypes that were made in the Museum’s Armor Shop by Tachaux as models for prospective manufacturers. Its deeply drawn-down bowl was intended to give much more coverage to the back and sides of the head than the British helmet, without impeding movement, vision, or breathing. Although difficult to manufacture because of the depth of the bowl, approximately 2,000 examples were produced by Ford Motor Company in the fall of 1918.

In an effort to combine the protective properties of Model 2 with the ease of manufacture of the Tin Hat, Dean developed American Helmet Model No. 5 (2013.582). With this helmet he felt he had met or exceeded the goals of improved protection, wearability, and practicality of production. While less deep than Model 2, it still gave excellent coverage to the back and sides of the head, was lightweight at only 2 lbs. 8 oz. (1130 g), and was not overly complex to manufacture. In the summer of 1918, 5,000 examples were sent to France for field tests. Much to Dean’s disappointment, the design was rejected because commanders felt it was not different enough from the British helmet, but was too similar to the German helmet.

Weighing 13 lbs. 12 oz. (6240 g) and highly specialized in its design and intent, American Helmet Model No. 7—Sentinel’s Helmet, was meant to be worn only for short periods of time, with an accompanying breastplate, in exposed or forward positions where heavy enemy fire was expected (2013.583). Its construction was based directly on that of the Italian armet, a type of helmet that was popular during the late fifteenth century (42.50.2). Thirty-five examples were sent to France for field testing, but despite its proven ability to resist rifle fire, the helmet was rejected due to its weight.

Among the many helmets designed by Dean, he believed his American Helmet Model No. 8 was the most successful in providing overall protection to the face as well as the head, while still allowing good visibility and mobility (2012.473). In addition, it was fairly light at 3 lbs. 10.5 oz. (1660 g). Dean refined the design to ensure that the helmet was well balanced and could be worn comfortably with its visor up or down. Ford Motor Company produced about 1,300 examples in die-stamped ballistic metal in 1918, but the helmet saw only limited field testing before the war ended.

Although helmets received the most attention, Dean and his team also created fully functional protection for the neck, torso, shoulders, arms, and legs—in effect the first full body armor since the seventeenth century (2002.130a–p). After making exhaustive analytical and statistical studies of the types of injuries being suffered by troops during the war, Dean found that a high percentage of debilitating wounds occurred on the extremities. As a consequence, he was adamant about the importance and necessity of developing practical plate armor for the arms and legs. The arm defenses he designed (2015.458.1a–f,.2a–f) were based closely on sixteenth-century plate armor (1991.4), but streamlined and made of light ballistic steel, weighing a little over 2 lbs. each. Two hundred pairs were made and sent overseas for testing in 1918, but they were rejected as impractical under battlefield conditions.

The necklet or gorget was developed in early 1918 as a defense for the upper chest and shoulders at the base of the neck (2015.458.3). After successful field testing of prototypes in France, it was described in a contemporary report as “the most practical of all body armor examined,” resulting in the production of 2,500 examples. Although quickly manufactured and prepared for shipment, they did not arrive in Europe before the end of the war on November 11, 1918. Surviving examples of this neck defense are very rare today.

Nearly forgotten by all but specialists and historians now, Dean’s war work was appreciated and praised at the time. Former president Teddy Roosevelt (1858–1919) wrote to Dean in 1918 to express his personal admiration for Dean’s contributions to the war effort, saying “Lord, how I wish I was half as useful!” After the war, Dean compiled a detailed record of his research and its results, which was published in 1920 as the book Helmets and Body Armor in Modern Warfare. Carl Otto von Kienbusch (1884–1976), Dean’s protégé and a fledgling arms and armor collector, was commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned to assist Dean during the war and subsequently in the preparation of the book. In several of the book’s illustrations, Kienbusch can be seen modeling prototypes, as can Raymond Bartel (died 1949), an armorer from France who had been brought to New York by Dean in 1914 to work at the Museum. Kienbusch later became the leading private arms and armor collector in America and eventually bequeathed his collection to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it can be seen today.

Although only one of Dean’s designs was adopted for use before the war ended, his work provided an important foundation for the subsequent development of the protective gear worn by U.S. soldiers in all later conflicts. His book on the subject is still considered a classic by contemporary designers of military armor. Following in Dean’s footsteps, Stephen Grancsay (1897–1980), who succeeded Dean as curator in 1929, also provided the U.S. government with designs for helmets, body armor, and other equipment during World War II and the Korean conflict. Leonard Heinrich (1900–1966), the Museum’s Armorer since 1924, made prototype helmets for the war effort with Grancsay, just as Tachaux had done with Dean a generation before (2016.628). The reintroduction of extensive, form-fitting body armor was a radical idea when Dean designed his prototypes in 1917 and 1918, but it is readily accepted as a vital part of a soldier’s battle gear now. Dean’s pioneering efforts helped pave the way for this life-saving change in attitudes toward the use of modern body armor.