Updated: Mar 23, 2021
At CIRCA1941 we have handled hundreds, if not thousands, of WWII helmets. Being able to sort the real from the fake is essential in this hobby. The following guide includes just some of the tips and tricks we have utilized over the years to identify helmets that are not what they purport to be. Note: this article links to and references products throughout; we have no association with the sellers of these products, nor do we enjoy any proceeds from their sales. If we have recommended a product, it is simply because it is something we use and find helpful.
Defining the Terms
Most fake helmets fall into one of three categories: the toy, the reenactor's piece, or the forgery. The toy is usually a post-war and/or clone of an M1 helmet that has recently been embellished with spray-painted insignia of a famous unit (2nd Rangers, 101st Airborne, 29th Infantry Division, medic, etc.). These fakes only require a cursory level of knowledge about WWII helmets to identify them for what they really are. If you know the helmet upon which the "WWII markings" are painted was actually produced during the Vietnam War or by a European country, then you know it could not have possibly sat atop the head of a U.S. soldier as he stormed the beaches of Normandy. If you're struggling with identifying what a wartime helmet looks like, check out this article.
The reenactor's piece is a helmet that usually consists of a genuine, wartime steel shell and liner that have, to some extent, been stripped of their original components and built back up using entirely new, reproduction materials. These can often be identified simply by their appearance (i.e., the paint, hardware, and webbing looks too new). If the helmet has developed some genuine age over the years, other factors can expose it as a fake, such as: a fantasy manufacturer's marking ("Walter R. Emery Sundries Ltd.", "Kirkman Mfg.", etc.), a method of modern production (needle loom woven straps as opposed to wartime shuttle loom), or a configuration that a particular manufacturer never produced (i.e., a paratrooper liner made by any company other than Hawley, General Fibre, St. Clair, Inland, or Westinghouse).
This article's focus is the forgery. The forgery is the hardest fake to spot because it is that which is the least fake. A helmet that is entirely original apart from a post-war applied decal or painted insignia is going to raise the least amount of red flags and the fakers know this. In the high-end art world; original canvases, frames, and even dust is all preserved to make a fake painting appear as authentic as possible; the same is true when it comes to WWII helmets. The less that is altered, the lower the chances are of getting caught.
To appear more valuable, German helmets will often be modified by the addition of a decal, a camouflage paint scheme, a liner (whereas before it was an incomplete shell), or some combination thereof. This might seem counterintuitive, but modern, replica decals are not as precise as wartime decals. Viewing a German decal under magnification will often indicate whether the decal is original or fake.
In our own toolbox, we carry dual magnification (30x & 60x) jeweler's loupes with built-in LED lighting. When viewing a decal under magnification, focus on the design's border or a sharp line (the lightning bolts of the Waffen SS, a vertical feather on a Heer eagle, where the white roundel meets the red backing on a Polizei decal, etc.). These areas, where two colors come together, show how wartime decals maintain a straight edge, whereas fake decals showcase a jagged sawtooth edge, which is a tell-tale sign the decal was created using a modern printer. One of the ways in which past forgers have attempted to overcome this issue is by actually painting their own "decals", as was done by the creator(s) of the notorious "champagne rune" Waffen SS helmets.
Sometimes helmets will consist of original parts that have recently been paired together to create a complete helmet. These "put together" helmets are less desirable in the collecting community because they are not in their original configuration. When evaluating whether a German helmet shell has recently been completed with a replacement liner, look to its three split pins. Factory-installed split pins will exhibit just a single bend in the metal prongs. When a split pin has been removed to allow for a liner re-installation, the prongs will show more than one bend in the metal and often fresh scratches resulting from manipulation by a pair of pliers.
Keep in mind, original un-bent split pins can still be acquired on their own. One tell-tale sign that a liner is not original to its helmet is to check whether the liner has remnants of any paint that does not match the helmet shell's interior. After the war, large quantities of German helmets were re-used by Norway and the Czech Republic. These helmets underwent a refurbishment process where they were repainted inside and out, often resulting in some paint getting on the liner itself. If your helmet's liner band looks like it was painted, but the steel shell doesn't match, you can be certain the liner is not original to the helmet.
When it comes to U.S. helmets, the most convincing fakes are those that have only been embellished with painted insignia. The original paint available to servicemen during the war was lead-based lacquers and alkyd enamels. A lead paint test will quickly disqualify a helmet if painted with modern paint, however it won't necessarily confirm whether a helmet is original because the more attentive forgers will use actual vintage, lead-based paint. Paint applied 70+ years ago should not smell like paint. If your helmet still smells like paint, it was painted recently; and if your helmet smells like something else (smokey, musty, etc.), it may just be an attempt to artificially mask the paint smell.
Vintage paint is non-reactive under ultra violet blacklight, however a lot of modern paint is also non-reactive, so blacklight flashlights should never be the only tool in your toolbox, but rather one of many. We use blacklights just like the one here. Vintage paints shrink, crackle, and craze as they age, whereas modern urethane paints are less prone. Original micro-cracking, which the unaided human eye cannot often see and most forgers have yet to correctly replicate, will become apparent under magnification. We use the same jeweler's loupe mentioned in the German Helmets section of this article to look for genuine micro-cracking on U.S. helmets, however as a seller of high-end authentic helmets, we also invested in a digital microscope, which allows the user to capture images at up to 500x magnification.
A microscope or strong magnifying glass is your best tool when it comes to authenticating genuine paint. In some rare instances (light wartime use, longtime arid storage, etc.), helmets with original paint may showcase little micro-cracking, however the vast majority will show at least some.
Nothing is better than handling and comparing both original and fake examples, and we hope these tips and tricks will help you in determining one from the other. If you'd like to acquire a helmet that is guaranteed to be authentic, come visit CIRCA1941's constantly-updated selection of helmets.