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Helmet history

Helmet history

Drawing of a german pickelhaube

The hobby of collecting Military Antiquities has exploded in recent years. Although interest in World War II and the American Civil War has always been strong, many collectors are now looking for collectibles from "The Great War" or World War I.

Relics from all countries involved in the conflict are now eagerly sought, but German helmets remain one of the most popular collectibles of the era. There were many German helmet types from that era. They include the shako, tschapka, busby, spiked helmet and "coal scuttle" steel helmet; but no piece of military headgear more exemplifies a nation or an age than the "Pickelhaube" or spiked helmet. The spiked helmet was the most popular war souvenir of the American doughboys. Thousands more were sent home by the U.S. government as premiums for purchasers of War Bonds.

Although the majority of helmets found today come from the 1900 to 1918 era, it is important for the collectors to understand the history and development of the “Pickelhaube”. The original helmet design adopted by the state of Prussia in 1842 eventually became the standard headgear for Imperial German Army from the mid 1800’s through the outbreak of World War I.


The era of the "Pickelhaube" corresponded with the building of the German nation. The history of Germany is in actuality the study of many different states, bound together by a common language and cultural heritage.

Military fashion of the early 1800's was dominated by the image of Napoleon Bonaparte. The tall shako used by the French and their allies was copied by nearly all the armies of Europe. Prussia developed a tall leather and felt shako after the French pattern. Besides its awkward shape, the chief complaint was its weight and instability when wet. By the 1840's many European countries sought to escape the Napoleonic influence.

The origin of the spiked helmet is shrouded in the fog of history. A popular story states that in 1840 the Prussian King Frederick Wilhelm IV, while visiting his brother-in-law Czar Nicholas I of Russia, happened to see the prototype for a new helmet on the Czar's desk. The leather helmet with spike was supposedly patterned after an ancient helmet found by a Russian farm girl on the old battlefield of Lipezk. The helmet was said to have belonged to Jaroslav Vaevolodovitch, the Duke of Moscow in the 12th century. King Frederick was so taken with the helmet that upon returning home to Prussia, he demanded that his army

The first model

The Prussian War Ministry began seeking designs for the helmet in late 1840. By March 1841, the first prototype spiked helmet was presented to the army.

This helmet was designed for use by the mounted kurassiers and was made of metal by the Metallwarenfabrik Wilhelm Jaeger of Eberfeld. Field trials were very complimentary of the size, weight, protection, and versatility of the new helmet style. The War Ministry immediately began serious development of the helmet design. Although the first prototype was made of metal for the kurassiers, it was the leather pattern helmet designed for the infantry and artillery that was first put into use. By late 1842, the Prussian War Ministry and the Quartermaster accepted the spiked helmet for use.

The model 1842

The Model 1842 spiked helmet was made of leather for use by regiments of infantry, grenadier, fusilier, artillery, pioneer, jaeger (who later changed to the shako) and dragoons . The original metal designed spiked helmet was adopted for use by the kurassiers in 1843. The helmet body was made of heavy vegetable tanned and pressed leather. The body was conical in shape and sewn together in the back. The front visor was square cut and edged with a 1 cm wide metal trim. The back visor was plain leather. All exterior leather was lacquered black. The helmet was crowned with a 14 cm tall spike mounted in the middle of a crossed base. The sewn area at the back of the helmet body was crested by a metal ridge or spine. The back spine extended from the edge of the spike base to the back edge of the rear visor. The chinstrap was made of vegetable tanned sheepskin and covered with rounded metal scales. The chinscales were affixed to the helmet body with an ornate knurled screw through an elongated rosette. Under the right rosette was placed a black and white colored cockade. The cockade was made of lacquered leather for enlisted men while officers wore leather mounted with a silver ring. The front emblem for "Regiments of the Line" was the Prussian heraldic eagle. Guard Regiments wore a spread winged eagle with the silver star of the Black Eagle Order on the eagles breast. Grenadier regiments wore the heraldic eagle with the intertwined royal monogram FWR on the eagle's breast.

Prussian Model 1842 reserve infantry officer’s spiked helmet
The first model

The "Pickelhaube" was quickly copied or adopted by many of the independent states allied with Prussia. By the late 1860's all but the independent kingdoms of Saxony, Wuerttemberg and Bavaria looked to Prussia for military leadership. The Military Convention of 1867 formed the basis for a unified German national army. This alliance insured mutual cooperation and protection to the allied German states. At that time most of the states adopted the Prussian style dress and spiked helmet. The victory over the French in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71) initiated the formation of the 2nd Kaiserreich (Empire) with the Prussian King Wilhelm I as its emperor. The Military convention of 1871 formalized the establishment of the unified Imperial Army. By 1886 all German states had adopted the "Pickelhaube".

Evolution of the spiked helmet

The "Pickelhaube" became such a popular head dress in the late 1890's that many countries adopted their own version of the spiked helmet. Those countries include Sweden, Norway, Rumania, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, Brazil, Chile, Equator, Peru, Mexico, Duchy of Parma, and the United States.

  • 1842: Introduction of the spiked helmet.
  • 1844: Introduction of the "ball" finial for artillery regiments.
  • 1857: Reduction in overall size and weight of helmet (2 cm shorter).
  • 1860: Significant reduction in size of helmet (4cm). Spike and base also reduced in size.
  • 1867: Radically different helmet design. Front visor now has round metal edging with the spike base also being round. The back spine is completely eliminated.
  • 1871: Back spine is re-introduced.
  • 1887: New style helmet for enlisted model helmet. Metal front visor trim removed and replaced with a hardened curled leather edge. Chinscale rosettes are replaced with a hook retention system. Pearl ring at spike base is removed.
  • 1891: Metal front visor trim re-introduced. M-87 chinscale hooks replaced with lug retainer (M91 side lug) for a leather chinstrap.
  • 1895: Reduction in size and weight of helmet (body now 12.5 cm tall). The front plate is now attached to the helmet body with 2 small metal loops behind the plate. The loops are affixed with small leather wedges in the back. Back spine for enlisted pattern helmets of foot troops was fitted with a ventilation sleeve (Mounted troops received the vented back spine in 1904). This helmet model was worn by enlisted troops at the outbreak of WWI.
  • 1897: Introduction of the black/white/red Reichs cockade to be worn in conjunction with the state cockade.
  • 1915: Modification to the M1895 enlisted pattern helmet. Introduction of matte gray oxidized steel to replace bright metal trim. Spike also made to be removable at base by a bayonet lock mechanism.

Helmet Identification

Please note that there is naturally a remarkable quality difference from private purchase helmets versus the standard issue model.

All officers, one year volunteers, faehnrichs (officer candidates), and many non-commissioned officers were required to purchase their helmets from private manufacturers. Enlisted pattern helmets were issued by the army and were mass produced.

Helmet body

There are three basic body styles used by spiked helmets of the post 1890 era. The authors have termed the styles as :

  1. Standard : Round front visor and round spike base
  2. Dragoon : Square front visor and crossed spike base
  3. Hessen : Round front visor and equal armed spike base

All military helmets use these pattern helmet bodies except Saxon General Officers and some Wuerttemberg NCO/I Year Volunteers which may have squared front visors and round spike bases. Many non-military, fire, civil servant, and police units wore spiked helmets similar to the military helmets. They use different body/trim criteria than the military pieces. Do not confuse them with military helmets.

Helmet Identification
Helmet Identification

Authors note: The information provided below is designed as an overview of the subject. Space limitations make extensive study of the subject impossible in this article. Please contact the authors with any specific questions or comments related to individual helmets.

Spiked helmets of the First Wolrd War

The German soldiers went to war in 1914 wearing the leather "Pickelhaube". All the bright metal trim hidden by a gray/green cloth field cover. After the initial push into France, the German High Command realized that more men were needed to achieve the victory over the Allies. Many thousands of helmets were fabricated early in the war to meet the needs expressed by the army quartermasters. Quickly, the extreme demand and reduction of available raw materials led to the use of replacement materials. Leather in short supply due to the allied sea embargo left many helmet manufacturers without the ability to meet their army contracts for helmets. To meet this demand pressed felt, paper mache`, synthetic fiber, cork, and stamped tin replaced the leather helmet body in many war model ersatz helmets.

The need for brass, which was used for shell casings, was acute. It was quickly clear to the German High Command that the spiked helmet was impractical for use in the trenches. The final helmet design change, Model 1915 replaced the bright metal trim with matte gray painted or chemically oxidized steel trim for all issue helmets. The unique element of the Mod.15 was the ability to remove the entire spike at the base by use of a bayonet lock mechanism. This reduced the profile of the helmet and made it better for use in trench warfare. Manufacturers of officer helmets also adopted some of the Model 1915 changes. Officer spikes were made to be removable at the base and Mod.91 style side lugs were used to allow officers to remove chinscales in the field and replace them with a more practical leather chinstrap.

The "Pickelhaube" was designed and created in a time of colorful uniforms, great parades and grand illusions. Sadly, it served the German soldier poorly in the time of high velocity shells and savage trench warfare. The troops in the field required more protection than the leather helmet could offer. In early 1916 the "coal scuttle" steel helmet was introduced to the front line soldiers. Almost immediately the spiked helmet disappeared from active use in the trenches. The "Pickelhaube" continued to find use among rear echelon and home based troops. Many officers refused to give up the symbol of the old army and continued to wear the helmet until the war end.

The collectors story

Collecting militaria is likened to going on a treasure hunt. Collectors are always looking for the "find" that will bring us joy and add a "piece of history" to our collections

Fortunately for the American "Pickelhaube" collectors, there were many thousands of helmets brought home as souvenirs after both WWI and WWII. Helmets still surface at garage sales, flea markets and gun shows.

Although the hobby is large and gaining new collectors daily, there has been very little in the way of reference and research material available in the English language concerning "Pickelhauben". To determine the value of an individual helmet the purchaser must be knowledgeable about helmet design, construction, and be able to identify the front plates of the German states and regiments.

When considering a piece for purchase the important considerations are originality, rank, condition, and rarity. When evaluating a helmet for purchase, one should use keen observation and common sense. Criteria includes :

  1. In order to be original, all metal parts should match in color and should configure snugly to the contour of the helmet. It is not uncommon to find helmets that have mismatched parts. The helmet was originally designed for an 18-year use life by the army. Many helmets were altered during the time of use by the quartermaster or by officers who purchased used helmets in order to save money. In the years since WWI some helmets have lost parts and pieces due to neglect and aging. As a collector, I am not opposed to restoring a helmet to its original station. I do oppose altering a helmet from its original use or rank. The collector must check to make sure that the front plate of a "rare" unit helmet has not been added at a later date. Everything from rare front plates, metal back spines, and even leather helmet bodies are now being reproduced. The collector should be on the lookout for helmets that have repro parts. Reproduction parts are poorer in quality than the original. They are usually made of formed copper and have been electroplated. To complete a helmet missing a needed part with a repro item will significantly impact the value of a helmet. It is most onerous when rare front plates are concerned. I would MUCH rather have original common helmets than a fake rare one.
  2. Naturally, rank has a lot to do with the value of a helmet. Officers model helmets are more valuable than enlisted models. The purchaser should remember that officer model helmets must have all the characteristics required to make the helmet proper for an officer. A helmet that appears to be an officer model but has a spike without officers 'pearls and diamond' ring or without "star" retainers is usually a private purchase helmet of a 1 Year Volunteer or Officer Candidate. Such helmets are not valued as high as that of a full officer model.
  3. The collector must remember that these helmets are all nearly 100 year old. Condition varies from pristine pieces that have been wonderfully stored in carrying cases to those found in the attics of Texas farmhouses. In every case, a mint original helmet will bring a premium price on the collector market. Such items are rare to find today. A helmet that is complete but shows slight aging or is dirty will also bring a good price. Helmets that are damaged altered, or missing parts must be discounted in value relative to the degree of problems. Most collectors prefer the helmet to remain in its original and unaltered condition. Replacement parts should be utilized only to restore a helmet to its original rank and position. BEWARE of over cleaning. An unskilled restorer can easily ruin a valuable helmet with his zeal to clean up a helmet. I am skilled as a restorer and I have harmed pieces by trying too hard. Remember officer helmets were fire gilded and SHOULD NOT be cleaned with an abrasive metal cleaner.
  4. The collector must be aware of the importance of rarity. Prussia, being the most heavily populated of the German states fielded a large contingent in the German army while the duchy of Schwarzburg Rudolstadt had only one battalion of troops. There were certainly thousands of Prussian helmets to every one helmet from Schwarzburg Rudolstadt. I recommend the collector study the breakdown of the German army regiments to get a clear picture of the relative numbers related to availability of helmet types. The helmets from some regiments bring a premium because of their appearance alone. Besides its rarity, the Braunschweig "Deaths Head" 92nd Infantry Regiment is much sought after due to its haunting beauty. The same is true of Life Guard and elite regiment helmets from all the German states.

The "Pickelhaube" had a distinct place in military history. It was the figurehead of one of the greatest professional armies the world has ever known. The fantastic shape of the spiked helmet along with its decoration and shining colors exemplified the pride of military tradition and the glory of a bygone age. For the collector, each helmet found is a true "piece of history".


  • Knoetel, Herbert, Pietsch, Paul, Das Deutsche Heer, Verlag Helmut Gerhard Schulz, Hamburg, 1961.
  • Larcarde, Jean Louis, Casques a Pointe et Coiffures de l`Armee Allemande 1842-1918, Vol.1 and Vol. 2, Jacques Grancher, Paris, 1983.
  • Wacker, Peter, 150 Jahre- Pickelhaube- 1843-1993, Die Tradition, Auktionhaus Jan Kube, Oktober 1993.
  • Herrman Reiner, Militaerische Kopfbedeckungen Der Kaiserzeit, Paul Pietsch Verlag, Stuttgart 2000.
  • Schiers Ulrich, Die Sammlungen Des Wehrgeschichtlichen Museums Im Schloss Rastatt, Militaegeschichtlisches Forschungsamt, Freiberg I/B 1988.
  • Laine Didier, L'Armee Allemande En 1914, Chromos Service, Paris 1984.
  • Laine Didier, Le Repertoire De L'Armee Allemande, Diffusion Histoire Et Documents 1998.