Murphy's Law: Frozen Helmet Gets Screwed


May 9, 2009: A U.S. manufacturer has recalled 37,000 ACH helmets, after it noticed that four screws, used to attach the chin strap, were not of the type called for in the specifications. This was discovered when helmets leaving the factory were inspected. During that process, one helmet from each lot is picked at random and fired at with a 9mm pistol. The helmet should stop that bullet. Several other helmets are picked from each lot and just examined visually. It was during this check that one of the inspectors noted how the four screws looked different from those used in previous shipments. This was double checked, and it was revealed that a different type of screw had been used for helmets shipped between last November and January, 2009. Further tests were conducted and it was found that the new screws did not stay attached when bullets were fired at the helmets under extreme temperatures (160 degrees and minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.) These extreme temperature requirements are mandated because helmets may find themselves shipped in containers that can be exposed to such extreme temperatures. When the manufacturer found that the new screws failed the temperature test, the army was notified, and the helmets recalled so that the proper screws could be installed.

This is not the first time the ACH has run into problems because of how it was built. It was in late 2005 that the U.S. Army began issuing the new ACH (Advanced Combat Helmet) on a wide scale. At the same time, the marines began distributing a similar "Marine Corps Lightweight Helmet", which is actually 15 percent larger than the ACH (but still smaller and lighter than the older helmet). In the first year of service, there was a dispute over whether or not fabric padding should be inserted between the webbing like helmet liner, which rests on the wearers skull, and the top of the helmet. The army believed the padding provided additional protection from bomb blasts. The marines disagreed, saying that without the padding, the helmets are lighter, and cooler to wear in very hot conditions. But Congress, and private charities (that are distributing free helmet liners to marines) got involved, and raked marine procurement officials over the coals. Such disputes over "defective weapons and equipment" are a staple of the media, politicians, and anyone looking for a little attention. Most of these crusades are based on bad facts, no facts, or invented facts.

The ACH completely replaced all the 1980s era PASGT (Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops) helmets two years ago. The Kevlar PASGT design was a third generation combat helmet, and nicknamed the "Fritz" after its resemblance to the German helmets used in both World Wars. That German World War I design, which was based on an analysis of where troops were being hit by fragments and bullets in combat, was the most successful combat helmet in both world wars. This basic design was finally adopted by many other nations, after the American Kevlar helmet appeared in the 1980s. Most of the second generation helmets, which appeared largely during World War II, were similar to the old American "steel pot" design. The fourth generation helmets, currently in service, use better synthetic materials and more comfortable design.

The PASGT came in five sizes, and weighed between 3.1 pounds (size Extra Small) to 4.2 pounds (size Extra Large). The new ACH weighs a third less than the PASGT, and uses a new type of Kevlar that provides more protection. The ACH will stop a 9mm bullet at close range, and rifle bullets at longer ranges. The ACH is smaller, and does not cover as much of the neck. This was important, because the newer protective vests (like the bullet-proof Interceptor) ride high on the back, thus becoming very uncomfortable when the soldier is prone and trying to fire his rifle. The ACH eliminates this problem. The ACH was first developed as a special project by the U.S. Army Special Forces, and was so successful that the rest of the army began buying them.



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