So why do I need a tactical helmet? Well, these days, tactical helmets aren’t just for airsofters or tactical reenactors. More night vision and thermal optics are in civilian hands than ever before, and a tactical helmet (ballistic or not) is the perfect way to mount your tubes. I’ve even seen folks use tactical bump helmets for sky diving and rock climbing! Not my preferred equipment for either of those two activities, but different brain buckets for different brains, I suppose.
Below we’ll take a look at several of the most popular brands and product lines for tactical helmets. Hopefully, after the review, you’ll know which one is right for you.
Table of Contents
- A Brief History Lesson
- Ballistic Helmets
- Tactical Bump Helmets
- Tactical Helmet Accessories
A Brief History Lesson
Helmets have been around for a very long time, which I’m sure is a shock. While we don’t exactly still use plate armor and monstrous war helms these days, helmet technology is rapidly approaching some SPARTAN II levels regarding an increase of capability.
In the mid-80s, the US Army switched from the M1 steel pot used in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The replacement helmet was called the Personnel Armor System for Ground Troops (PASGT) that was revolutionary in that it was made using Kevlar. The PASGT system was also accompanied by Kevlar body armor, but we’ll save that discussion for another article. Lighter and stronger than the steel model it replaced, the PASGT had an improved profile to protect the temple area while reducing weight. It’s also a much more comfortable helmet than the M1, but it has a similar suspension system.
The next evolution was spearheaded by SOCOM, known as the Modular Integrated Communications Helmet (MICH). The Army liked the idea so much that they adopted the MICH as the ACH (Advanced Combat Helmet). This helmet had improved materials to increase its ballistic performance, had a four-point retention system, and the ability to wear communications gear under the helmet for inter-team comms systems.
That brings us to where we’re at in the timeline now: the FAST era. SOCOM and the USMC have led the way in the development of the Future Assault Shell Technology (FAST) helmet in conjunction with industry leaders. The FAST helmets make use of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene fibers. Holy smokes, that’s a mouthful, but what it boils down to is stronger and lighter woven material than pure Kevlar.
The FAST system also comes with a wide suite of add ons, such as tactical side rails, NVG mounts, and helmet covers. All of this can make our job easier to do, but all that weight DEFINITELY adds up.
Bump Helmets: Not just for skateboarders and skiers
The vast majority of helmets in the military are rightfully ballistic, meaning that they offer limited protection from shrapnel and projectiles. However, not every job requires the weight and protection of a ballistic helmet. Remember all those sweet pictures of C Squadron dudes running and gunning in Mogadishu with Protec hockey helmets? Well, those guys decided that they were more at risk of knocking themselves unconscious, getting in and out of buildings and helos than getting shot in the cranium.
Operators use them for free fall, and static line jumps, rock climbing, and tearing the mountain trails up on ATVs nowadays. The bump helmets now are also molded to accept standard NVG mounts and ARC rail adaptors, giving you the same capability to mount your PVS-31As and Peltors as the ballistic helmets.
Most operators will still rely on ballistic helmets for everything combat-related (duh), but bump helmets are still a good alternative for folks looking for a less expensive alternative without the need for ballistic performance.
The most common brands in the tactical helmet these days are Ops-Core, Crye Precision, and Team Wendy. There are a few other boutique companies out there, but these are the big dogs on the block with the most proven track records of performance.
This helmet is currently issued to US Special Forces and Ranger Regiment (no one cares what the SEALs have). It’s a great helmet that comes with all the bells and whistles: integrated ARC rail for mounting lights or communication gear, hardpoint mount to accept Wilcox NVG diamond mounts, 4-point suspension system, modular Velcro pads, female Velcro on the outside for cell tags, IR strobes, or battery packs, and a circular ratchet knob to adjust tightness.
My gripe with this helmet is that it pinches more at the temples than the other offerings, especially if your route Peltor wires inside of the helmet.
Overall, it does everything I need it to do.
- Weight: 2.71 lbs (large size, full system)
- Price: $799.00 at Gentex Corporation
Despite getting issued the Ops-Core FAST, a few of my teammates went ahead and purchased the Crye Precision Airframe. I asked if I could wear one during some full mission profile exercises, and I could see why. The Airframe feels a lot lighter and has a more uniformed squeezing of the brain than the pointed Ops-Core. The shell of the Airframe is a unique design, as the front shell overlaps the rear shell, something like two molded Kevlar scales. It creates a bulky appearance but allows for a small amount of movement as opposed to the rigidity in the competition.
The thing I dislike about the Airframe is that you need to purchase a mounting system for your NVGs as well as a proprietary ARC rail separately. It’s also a bit bulkier than the Ops-Core, but that’s really only an issue when you’re packing it in your kit bag and not so much when you wear it.
- Weight: 2.55 lbs (large, no ARC rail or NVG mount)
- Price: $1092.70 at Crye Precision
The Team Wendy EXFIL, in my opinion, is the most comfortable offering of the bunch. The pads on the interior of the helmet come in two separate thicknesses and allow the end-user to modify the placement of the pads to increase comfort. It’s also lighter than the Ops-Core on paper, though I wouldn’t know that if I didn’t look it up since you can’t tell when you wear them. Unlike the Airframe, this helmet does come with a Wilcox NVG shroud and an unorthodox rail system. The EXFIL I reviewed had the Rail 2.0 System, and it came with two Magpul Picatinny rail sections, which was great to mount a helmet light (you need accessory adaptors with the Ops-Core and Airframe).
I did not care for the Rail 2.0 System because I needed different mounting hardware for my Peltors. The Ops-Core and Airframe both used the same comtac adaptor, but you need to buy the Team Wendy rail slot adaptor separately. If you’re buying this helmet, it’s not a big deal because you can just get the Team Wendy specific accessories. This helmet was also the hottest with the least ventilation, but that’s the trade-off for all those pads.
- Weight: 2.6 lbs (medium/ large)
- Price: $1116.35 at Team Wendy
Bonus: Team Wendy also makes an extremely lightweight helmet, the EXFIL SL. The EXFIL SL weighs an insane 1.51 lbs (large helmet) with the same NIJ Level III-A protection as the EFXIL. Check EXFIL SL out for the lightest ballistic helmet on the market.
Tactical Bump Helmets
As expected, you’ll see many of the manufactures from the ballistic section in the bump helmet category as well. It’s up to you to decide why you need a helmet. If it’s to look cool, you can definitely do it with a ballistic or bump helmet. If you need to protect your dome from bullets, go ballistic. If you only need to guard your noggin against concussions, pick up one of these sweet bump helmets.
Ops Core’s bump helmet is literally exactly like the FAST ballistic helmet…. just not ballistic. Instead of the thick ballistic material, its injection-molded plastic. The main purpose of this helmet is to offer some protection to your brain while still mounting your NVGs, hearing protection, camera, lights, or anything else.
NVGs are mounted directly to the helmet without a need for a bolt-on shroud. It’ll be secure enough for just about everything, but it won’t be as secure as a bolt-on shroud.
Price: $295.00 at Gentex Corporation
Protec is one of the older helmet making companies, literally making bump helmets before they were cool. They make hockey, skateboard, and skiing helmets, but they realized they could use them for military applications when Delta Force and other counter-terrorism units around the world favored these lightweight plastic helmets instead of the bulkier, ballistic versions. The Protec Advanced Tactical Helmet is very Ops Core-esque in that it has a molded NVG hardpoint and ARC rails on the sides.
Unfortunately, it’s a one size fits all deal, so you don’t get the full adjustment like with other models, but the benefit is that it’s the least expensive option by far.
Price: $70.00 at Protec
This is, once again, extremely similar to Team Wendy’s ballistic offering. This helmet is actually really handy for a bump helmet. It comes with a great adjustment system that allows you to tighten or loosen with a single hand. The other main feature I like is the aluminum NVG attachment, complete with bungee cords. This is an important distinction from many of the other bump helmets in that it’s far and away from the most secure way to mount your $12,000 NVGs. Personally, I appreciate the extra insurance.
As previously stated, I’m not the biggest fan of the Team Wendy rail system, also found on this helmet, but that shouldn’t be a disqualifier for you. The main thing I dislike about this helmet is the price. It’s a great helmet, but awfully expensive for what it is.
Tactical Helmet Accessories
There are all sorts of helmet accessories nowadays. Helmet mounted lights, camera mounts, communications gear, NVG battery packs, and strobes are all great pieces of kit that make your job a lot easier. Below I’ll give you the rundown on the gear I run on my helmet as well as a few other alternatives.
This is actually the most useful thing, outside of my NVGs, I wear on my helmet. I got really tired of having to hold my headlamp in my mouth whenever I needed to take slant counts, fill out close air support (CAS) requests, or check a ground reference guide (GRG). The Princeton Tec Charge is my answer to that problem. It mounts directly into my ARC rail, but it also comes with an attachment that mounts it above the ARC rail to give me more rail space. It’s not terribly bright at 55 lumens, but it works great for the distance I need to see. Our team ordered ours to have a white light, red light, and IR light. You can get them in various combinations of white, red, green, blue, and IR.
If you don’t need a red light, you can also get picatinny rail sections and mount them on your ARC or Team Wendy rails. Then you can add a Surefire X300, Streamlight TLR-1, or Inforce WML. My Troop Sergeant Major rocks an X300 and uses it as a backup to his pistol light in the event it ever fails him.
Personally, I’m not a big fan of helmet cameras. A lot of teams have gotten in trouble when the confiscated helmet camera doesn’t match with the story in the AAR. But I digress. I think law enforcement officers should definitely have some sort of helmet camera with them to protect against false claims.
If you already have a GoPro, you can buy a mount that will attach to a standard NVG mount. It’s pretty secure, and it’s what we used to do for AARs back in my infantry time. Now, I would opt for either a Contour ROAMor MOHOC Elite Ops. Both of those mount either on your ARC rail or with the MOHOC, directly on top of your helmet. If you use the MOHOC, which is a really cool camera, you’ll want to secure it with more than just Velcro, so be prepared to use some gutted 550 cord to tie it down.
Cameras also look really cool, and if you’re not putting your range session on Instagram, did it even happen?
Communications and Hearing Protection
A lot of guys prefer to wear their Peltors mounted to their ARC rails because it’s extremely comfortable. I am one of those dudes. To do this, you need to buy the 3M ARC rail adaptors(models are also available for the Team Wendy Rail 2.0 and 3.0 systems).
You’ll need to cut the regular strap that fits over your head, careful not to cut the wiring, and attach the muffs to the adaptors. Then just slide the adaptors on the ARC rail to a comfortable spot. You don’t need to spring for the $700 dual comms Peltors as the adaptors will actually work with several different models of Peltors for hearing protection.
Pro tip: I actually route the cable connecting the muffs outside of the helmet. I found that the wire would pinch my head where the wire was routed between the helmet band and the helmet itself. We’ll talk about a trick to help with this in a different section a little farther down when we discuss helmet covers.
NVG Battery Packs
Maybe you need them, perhaps you don’t, but the bottom line is, they look really cool. Most of the ones I’ve seen, also double as a strobe, which is super handy. The battery packs can take your NVG battery life to last you for several nights of operations without having to worry about swapping batteries.
They also act as a counterweight, which is an often undervalued aspect of wearing NVGs for extended periods. You’ll want some Velcro on the back of your helmet to attach your battery pack at the very least, but I’d also run either some shock cord or 550 along the back to ensure it’s secured… or you can just take the easy way out and get a sweet helmet cover.
For remote battery packs, I’d highly suggest The Night Vision Company (TVNC). What they lack in name creativity, they make up for with great equipment. Check out their section on external batteries for NVG here.
This section is primarily for military, LEO, technical rescue folks, hunters, or backcountry hikers. That being said, it’s always nice to have a strobe with you in your emergency kit so helicopters or first responders can find you. I wear the S&S Precision Mantastrobe that has settings for IR and white light functionality. Another solid option some of my teammates opt for is the CORE Survival HEL-STAR.
The helmet cover is really an essential piece of gear, especially when you have several thousands of dollars attached to your helmet. The helmet cover will secure and safeguard your gear and can even add more functionality. I use a RE Factor Tactical RDXcover. I am a paid blog writer for RE Factor Tactical, but I bought the RDX with my own money and used a public discount code. Since I bought it, it’s been great. It came with counterweights, a battery pack cinch, and plenty of options to Velcro and route cables.
As I stated in the commo gear section, I route my Peltor cable that connects the muffs on the exterior of the helmet that I route through the RDX. I attach my cell tags and US flags on the side Velcro areas. What I like about the RDX is that you just roll the helmet cover over your helmet without having to take the NVG mount off. It attaches to the helmet with Velcro tabs that fit between the helmet Velcro and the helmet pads.
Ops Core, Team Wendy, First Spear, and Spiritus Systems all make excellent pieces of kit that will also get the job done just fine as far as securing your gear to your helmet. Take a look at the links to shop around for the best helmet cover for your needs.