Brain Bucket Basics
I am not currently, nor was I ever in the military, nor have I worn a helmet in combat, direct action mission, MEDIVAC, or any action of the sort. My experiences have been drawn from a lifetime of wearing helmets growing up playing sports, climbing, rappelling, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, and continuing to train in the civilian sector. All of that being said, there are some topics or accessories that I breeze over or label as “non-essential”. It’s not because I don’t think it’s cool, or would really like one, but rather cause it isn’t essential or practical to those of us living the TERAC life. One can argue that a helmet as a whole, is non-essential kit; and I can honestly say that I agree. My helmet is not part of my EDC, or in my truck 24/7. Nevertheless, there ARE times when I want to have a helmet available. Be it a shoothouse, force on force training, ATVing, rock climbing, rappelling, mountain biking, or other activity, there are times when one is merited. My intention here is to put ideas down on paper, outline the theory that I have used to set up my kit. It is NOT to convince you that you NEED a helmet. So please don’t try to explain to your significant other that I told you or convinced you that you needed a helmet. Bearing that in mind, grab a beer, sit back and enjoy.
There are a myriad of different helmets out there on the market from everything from football to rock climbing, all of which offer advantages and disadvantages and volumes worth of testing data and evaluation; however for this document we will look at the two most common helmet types in the MIL/LEO/TERAC (Trained Educated Responsible Armed Citizen) circles. Brain buckets can be separated into two separate categories: ballistic and bump. The titles pretty clearly define the primary difference being that one offers significant ballistic protection, where the other does not.
There are four major types of ballistic helmets floating around: Steel, early Kevlar (PASGT), MICH/ACH/LW, and advanced. While steel and early Kevlar are still prevalent, they are for the most part irrelevant, and therefore will not be covered. It is important to note that when a helmet is referred to as being “ballistic” it is generally encompassing threats up to level IIIA (including military fragmentation specifications), or all standard handgun rounds up to .44 Mag from 16’ away, showing a backface deformation of less than 24mm – or about 1” (not including specialty SPC/PPW rounds). They are NOT rated for rifle rounds. There have been some new strides by Velocity Systems with their new “plate” for the frontal lobes or glacis of the helmet, but for all practical purposes, helmets are not designed to stop rifle rounds.
The aramid family of fibers is the most common type of fiber used in soft armor. It is light, strong, affordable and durable (with the right care). Kevlar, Twaron, Zylon, and Nomex are some of the morewell-known aramids fibers. There are however a couple of drawbacks with aramid – the fibers begin to deteriorate and break down in the presence of moisture, UV light, or abrasion. This is why soft armor inserts are often packaged into a containing bag that is watertight and opaque (light cannot permeate it) – provided the bag isn’t ripped and soldiers are given such stern warnings and care instructions for their soft armor. For helmet application, these fibers are carefully woven into a close weave of overlapping fibers to provide strength in multiple dimensions. These layers of fiber are then placed into a mold of given geometry and impregnated with a resin, which when cured, will hold the geometry of the helmet.
UHMWPE (Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene)
UHMWPEs are the most recent fad in the ballistic textiles world. Able to be formed and molded into complex shapes, as well as having extraordinarily high tensile strengths, they are ideally suited for armor applications. There are two draw backs to this material: cost and the toxic fumes they give off when burned; so if you’re planning on wearing these into high temperature environments, or enclosed crew spaces, think twice. Aside from that, UHMWPE are generally lighter, thinner, and neutrally buoyant (they float). It’s really good stuff, but it will also cost you an arm and a leg. Common trade names for UHMWPE are Dyneema, Spectra, and GoldFlex.
Being the military’s most recently issued helmets throughout the past decade of conflicts are currently the most commonplace of buckets. There are subtle differences between each of these types, pertaining to issued suspension systems, hole patterns for NVG mounts, and coverage percentages, but that can be further expounded on later if needed. The important point here is the cut. The cut is referring to the height of the ear cups on the helmet. There are three widely accepted versions, and while each company has their own twist on them, for the most part they fall into one of three categories:
Has full ballistic protection over the wearer’s ears offered by “bump outs” over each of your ears and are designed to work in conjunction with Peltor COMTAC headsets worn underneath the helmet.
Removes half of the ballistic protection over the wearer’s ears, resulting in a helmet that looks like it had some of the bottom “trimmed” off.
Often referred to as “gunfighter cut” these have all of the ballistic ear protection removed, and often most closely resembles one of the newer “advanced” class of helmets or a sporting helmet.
All of these cuts use an aramid or UHMWPE matrix to offer the same Level IIIA of protection, however not over the same areas. Obviously the more material removed, the lighter the helmet. Additionally the higher cut helmets provide more clearance for integrated ear protection, either underneath the helmet, or mounted directly to the helmet. All in all the high cut helmets provide a more nimble, modular package. They can be fitted with a wide variety of NVGs mounting shrouds, aftermarket rails (such as the Ops Core ACH Rail), however they require the end user to mark, drill, and alter their own set up. For folks who are not comfortable with that idea, this can be a daunting task. However based on their proliferation, they are often cheaper than the more advanced class of helmets. The best upgrades one can make with this kind of helmet are the suspension system and helmet liner system, which are explained below in the accessories section.
This class is referring to three specific helmets manufactured by three independent companies: the Ops Core Maritime, the Crye Airframe, and the new Team Wendy Ballistic Helmet. These helmets were designed with specific end user feedback to improve on the drawbacks still present with the current issue MICH/ACH/LW helmet systems. With the recent increased use of NVGs helmet systems need to have an integrated ability to support NVGs. Based on advances in material science, there were also changes made in UHMWPE fibers and manufacturing practices to make gains in ballistic performance. You will notice changes in the geometry in each of these helmet designs (each take a different approach) which are significant departures from the legacy platforms. All of them are “high cut” styles allowing them to cut weight and allow ease of use with integrated hearing protection. Most of these systems are officially documented to have a ballistic protection level of IIIA, however they are UNOFFICIALLY documented to have stopped a much wider variety of rounds including, low velocity or post-terminal rifle rounds. I make no official claim that this is possible. The majority of these systems feature hardware that is either modular or factory installed, meaning that in-home modifications that alter or compromise the ballistic integrity of the shell are not necessary.
In my personal opinion, bump helmets are one of the greatest innovations to be introduced to the market, especially for TERAC. Where ballistic protection is not absolutely essential (for the majority of us…), and the end user is looking for a platform to mount lights, cameras, NVGs, integrated ear pro, and protection against blunt force trauma; the bump helmet is a natural candidate. They can be separated into three predominant classes; the skateboard helmet, the exotic composite, and Lightweight Tactical Helmet.
The Skateboard helmet
By the depiction of special operations personnel running the infamous “Pro Tec” helmet in Blackhawk down, the skateboard helmet has made impressive strides in the market for those seeking a low cost solution to a bump helmet. Like the bike and skateboard helmets we all grew up with, they feature closed cell EVA padding that are really very comfortable. Upgraded with new suspension systems to eliminate pitch and yaw, pic rails mounted to the sides, and the occasional appearance of a NVG shroud drilled into the front, these are very cost effective and efficient solutions to fill this gap.
Ops Core was the first to this market with their FAST shell. Made of carbon fiber, the shell is EXTREMELY light, even in comparison to the all popular skateboard helmet, and when compared side by side to the full ballistic is almost laughably light. The Team Wendy EXFIL followed soon after, and both of these shells offer the style and functionality of the Advanced ballistic helmets without the ballistic protection – factory integrated NVG shroud, ARC rails, retention cords, hook and loop, upgraded suspension systems and the like. That being said, again, OFFICIALLY these do not offer any ballistic protection, however there are unofficial reports of these systems stopping shrapnel, fragmentation, and low velocity post-terminal rounds. Nevertheless, these are NOT ballistically rated, and I make no statement that they are.
Lightweight Tactical Helmet
Follow the same form lines of the advanced ballistic helmets and the exotic composite helmets are the new comer to the market, and are a logical extension of the exotic composites. With the ground work laid by the exotic composites, the LTHs quickly followed. Offering all of the advantages proven popular by the advanced ballistic helmets AND the exotic composites, the lightweight tactical helmets capitalized by eliminating the expensive exotic fibers and using an injected plastic shell, bringing the price down significantly. As of late, with their increased availability, inherent factory installed advantages, form and function, these are not only becoming increasingly more popular, but more practical as well. They are especially well suited to folks who rock climb, kayak, white water raft, mountain bike; all activities requiring helmets and the desire for the user to capture POV videos.
The interwebs is flooded with this that and the other thing for the tactical market, and helmet accessories are no different. However like a sling and a white light for your AR, there are a couple of things that I would label as essentials. I will start with those couple of things and expand from there.
(the chin strap that holds it on your mellon) The suspension system constrains the helmet around your head so that it moves when you want it to, and doesn’t move when you don’t want it to is important. Combined with violent action having a poor suspension system is a bad day. Brims slammed into the bridge of your nose, spinning around on your head and slamming up and down are just a few. This is NOT one of those areas to skimp out on. Use a well documented suspension system like the Ops Core H or X nape suspension kits, or the Team Wendy Cam fit retention system, you will not regret it.
Helmet Liner System
(the pads that keep the shell from smashing up your top side) HLS are the other half of the suspension system discussion. In order to properly constrain the movement of the helmet, you need to have a solid foundation to secure against; by the same token, you want that foundation to give appropriately, especially under traumatic loading. Again, this is NOT the area that you want to skimp in. There are several different systems on the market from companies like Gentex and however the Team Wendy Epic Air liners and Ops Core Occ Dial and Luxx systems are top of the line.
Personal Identification (PID) Light
For marking out that YOU are where you are so someone doesn’t shoot you, run you over, or cause some other grievous injury. Doesn’t matter if you’re conduct search and rescue, are at a low light range session, riding a bike at night, PID Light is important for allowing friendlies to spot you. You don’t have to break the bank on this accessory, but get something that works. The S&S Precision V-lite, S&S Precision Manta Strobe, Neptune strobe, Brite Strike APALS to mention just a few of the myriad that are out there. Snatch one up and get it on your bucket. As the highest point on your body, and connected to the part that is continuously moving, it’s the best position for it. Shoot, Velcro a calumen to it if you need to…
Similar to the concept of the picitinny rail employed on weapons across the globe, helmet rails incorporate a dovetail geometry that allow the quick mounting of various accessories to a helmet. They serve as the foundation for the majority of helmet mounted lights, cameras, the Peltor Arc Rail Adapters that host the SARA system, HALO masks, NVG retention lines, etc. While predominantly featured on the advanced ballistic helmets, they are found in the “little brother” bump helmets and now are available as an aftermarket upgrade for the MICH/ACH series of helmets. Ops Core, Crye, and Team Wendy all employ proprietary geometries for their rails.
While not everyone agrees with me on this one, I’m a big proponent of having a white red light attached to my head. It allows for hands-free targeting of the light while leaving both of my hands free to accomplish the task at hand. Enough said? Enough said. Princeton Tech MPLS system is easily integrated into the Ops Core ARC series of rails, they also make a headlamp variant that allows it to be directly attached to your NVG shroud. There are a couple of pic-rail adapters for the ARC rails that allow any standard pic-rail light mounts and lights (Surefire, Streamlight, etc) to be mounted up.
Petzl also makes a couple decent models that can be simply slapped on with a couple of strips of hook and loop.
Integrated Eye/Ear Protection
While integrated eye and ear protection certainly isn’t a must, it’s an easy step especially with a platform like this. Regardless if this is an option that you pursue, make sure that your ear pro creates a good seal around your ears without compromising the way the helmet fits and your eye pro does the same. This can be accomplished by moving around your padding systems to accommodate for headsets that have to be worn under the helmet, or for those that link up directly to the helmet, such as the Peltor Arc Rail adapters or the Iron Forged Concepts SARA. A note on attaching ear pro to your helmet; the ear pro acts in conjunction with your suspension and liner systems to create an even more stable solution. They’re pretty neat, if I do say so myself. As far as eye pro goes, Oakley has some solid systems, including new sealing systems that can connect to existing lenses. Smith Elite’s Boogie Regulator and Lo Pro Goggle with their helmet attachment systems, additionally their Aegis ECHO frames integrate beautifully with all the helmet systems and are very difficult to beat.
Whether you’re a GoPro guy or a Contour guy is of no consequence, however a bucket offers an excellent platform for securely mounting a POV type camera in a place to get the best field of view with the most stability. There are NVG shroud – direct mounts, VHB Adhesive mounts, pic rail mounts, and more. Chances are if you’re running a helmet, you’re doing some cool stuff. If you don’t already have a POV type camera, get on it! The 12 year old I saw on the ski hill this past weekend did, and it was WAY nicer than mine…
NVG/NOD Mounts/Systems and Counterweights
I’m sure everyone was curious as to when I was going to bring these up, however as cool as they are, I am neither well versed enough, nor experienced enough to speak to them. I would encourage you to direct your questions, inquiries and desires to learn the systems to the guys over at TNVC. They’re awesome dudes, and smart to beat the band.
Flare (for extra points)
Now far from essential (for some of us), but lusted after by cool guys everywhere are the little things. Hook and loop applied generously to attach patches, flags, morale, ID Tags, blood type patches. Elastic retention lines, Bible verses, personal mantra’s (Born to kill), Ace of spades, random rounds, drawings and such – all of these are highly encouraged. There are a bunch of helmet covers out there from First Spear, Crye, AGLite and other companies if helmet covers are your thing – or you could go all ghetto, whip out the Krylon and tag up your kit. It’s never really mine until I mess it up anyway…
I’m sure as you’ve read this, you been bouncing around on sites, adding up numbers in your head (or on calculators for your engineers out there…) and you’ve come to the easy conclusion that this is NOT a cheap endeavour. As I stated at the beginning, I’m not here to convince you to build one. What I will do is direct you back to the beginning as well and remind you that we’re talking about your head. I will also propose to you that you could get an EXCELLENT system set up for less than what your next “gun build” or project is. Additionally, if it lets you further or expands your training with advanced courses, then it comes down to a matter of priority.
If you’re looking at a lot of those little things adding up, and you don’t absolutely NEED a ballistic solution, take a serious look at the Team Wendy LTP or the Ops Core bump helmet. They com equipped with the helmet liner systems, the suspension systems, ARC Rails, NVG Shrouds, elastic retention, lots of hook and loop and come in pretty colors (you know, cool guy stuff). And when you start adding ALL that stuff up, and the hassle of installing all of it yourself, it starts to get real close to the same price. After those major components are taken care of, the little cool stuff is much easier to swallow.
TNVC was gracious enough to allow me to use pictures directly off of their website to bring specific attention to products, helmets, accessories and the like. If you enjoyed this article and got something out of it, please head on over to their Facebook page and thank them. More importantly, if you’re looking for these accessories, they are an incredible resource and offer 99% of what you’ve seen here. They have an awesome helmet builder program set up on their site to walk you through picking out these accessories part by part, head on over and check it out.
Additionally, this couldn’t have been done without Firelance Media’s creative support, you can check them out on Facebook and at www.firelancemedia.com
In closing, if you don’t have medical training, get it sooner rather than later, it could mean saving your own life or the life of a loved one – exactly what you’re trying to accomplish with a helmet. In fact, if you’re thinking of building a helmet right now and you haven’t taken a medical course; skip the helmet and get the training.
Thanks for sticking with me for the duration, and I hope you found it helpful. As always stay safe and God bless.