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In recent years, U.S. service members have realized that gas masks aren’t just for suffering through yearly gas mask qualifications, but are useful tools for any sort of situation where airborne chemicals or particulates are present. The western United States experiences wildfires and high levels of airborne smoke, which can aggravate respiratory illnesses, and during the BLM protests in 2020, many people realized that the clouds of CS gas used by the police affected everyone, even if they weren’t physically at the protest.
These hazards are nothing new, and people have taken to purchasing subpar (but heavily advertised) gas masks as a way to remediate this. The advantage here is that there are ways that you can actually own the same gas masks trusted by military CBRNE specialists, and we’re here to show you these ways, and offer some important tips on how to make sure that the next time there’s some sort of airborne contaminant, you’re set. Remember, when buying used, and at least once a year, check the seals of your gas mask to prevent contaminant infiltration.
How we tested
For this article, I drew upon my own experience wearing and selling gas masks, which helped make the practical application parts of this article easier, but acknowledged my own lack of expertise on the matter, and instead turned to CBRNE experts in the military and DoD civilian communities who have, in some cases, relied upon their respirators to save their lives while they work with hazardous chemicals and substances. This, combined with research and statistics to back up what they said, led to the recommendations today. If any of you were hoping that we’d taken one of our employees and shoved him into a room with Sarin gas to see if the gas mask worked, I’m sorry to disappoint.
The Avon M50 is the standard-issue gas mask for the United States, Norway, Belgium, and Finland, and is seeing adoption in the militaries of other NATO partner allies, offering a wide variety of sizes, features, and aftermarket accessories. It’s well-designed, and is specifically engineered to be more user-friendly and handy in a tactical environment. It’s also standard-issue in the Marine Corps, meaning that it’s the gas mask that I have the most personal experience with on this list. In addition to my meager experience, this is the gas mask that CBRNE experts all recommended as the current cream of the crop, since it’s widely supported with an ecosystem of accessories and reliable enough to be considered the centerpiece for military CBRNE operations.
The Avon M50 is a full-featured respirator for the most hazardous of environments, designed to be flexible enough to support everything from gas chamber qualifications to full-on Powered Air Purifying Respirators (PAPRs). Finding things like CBRNE hoods, replacement lenses, prescription glasses mounts, and other accessories is super easy, since it’s the current standard for U.S. forces and NATO partner allies. If you’re like me, and commonly use a radio headset for communications, trying to use the microphone of a headset with a respirator on is completely useless, which is why many headset manufacturers make adapters for respirator voice boxes. Finally, and most importantly, because this is the current NATO standard, filters are easy to find, so you’ll have no issue finding filters for your intended use at a fair price.
If you’re looking for a gas mask just to look like an operator on Instagram, and you’re not actively expecting to encounter CBRNE threats, the Avon M50 is a bit expensive, ranging in the mid-$300s. This goes double for people who just want a gas mask with an expired filter to do with workouts. Another issue is that while you can swap the filter to either side to allow you to get a cheek weld on your rifle, and it’s slimmer than previous gas masks from bygone years, it’s still rather bulky on the face, meaning that half-face respirators are probably a better option if you just need protection from smoke or drywall dust. Finally, the lenses on the M50 fog really easily, especially in hot and humid weather like we have here in Virginia during the summer, so definitely use some sort of anti-fog solution on them as part of your preparation.
- Country of manufacture: U.S.
- Filter compatibility: NATO 40mm
- Size options: S-XL
The military standard, so accessories are common
Capable of mounting voice boxes and radio links
Filters are easy to find
Costly for people who just want gas masks to feel like preppers
Bulky on the face
Lenses fog easily
“Ops-Core” and “value” are not often phrases that go together, especially when you consider the fact that they were premium options on both our lists for ballistic helmets and hearing protection, offering the very best — at a cost. However, for people who need to keep their lungs smoke- and dust-free, and who want it in an attainable, compact package, this is honestly the best option that can still stand up to a tactical environment and hard use. The Special Operations Tactical Respirator, or SOTR, is no slouch either, coming with a lot of the features that full-size gas masks come with, further enhancing the value proposition.
The SOTR is a half-face respirator, similar to what you see people using when painting, installing fiberglass insulation, or cutting drywall, but in a tactical package designed for high-stakes missions or training exercises. This means that it’s a small mask that easily fits into a pouch, cargo pocket, or small bag, and which can be taken off or put on easily if the situation requires it. It can support a built-in voice projection microphone, connect to a radio headset, and supports one-handed swappable filters, which I found extremely easy to do in a hurry, as long as the filters are handy. It’s also a great affordable option for people who just need respiratory protection from airborne particulates in a durable package, stripping away the bulk and cost of options that are meant for microbe filtration. Finally, there are budget versions that do away with things like the powered voice box to further lower the price, so if you just need something that you can quickly throw on in the event of smoke or dust, this is a good option.
Unfortunately the biggest issue with the SOTR is that it’s a unitasker, and is good for basically one thing: airborne particulate. If you’re in any sort of CBRNE environment that involves chemical or biological weapons, this is totally unsafe and unsuitable, but if you work in those environments, you know that. What this also means is that you’ll have to wear full-seal eyewear, or at least have it handy to take full advantage of this mask, and parts of your face will still be exposed, so if you do try to use it against oil-based airborne vapor like CS gas, you will still get that tingling or stinging sensation as the tear gas makes acid with the sweat on the exposed portion of your face. Another issue is because the mask itself is so small, the filters are proprietary, so you won’t be able to use standard sizes.
- Country of manufacture: U.S.
- Filter compatibility: Ops-Core proprietary
- Size options: One size fits all
Easy to take on and off
Inexpensive relative to full-face masks
Leaves skin exposed to corrosive agents
Filters are proprietary
Filters are only suitable for particulate
If you live in an area where environmental hazards are a real enough threat for you to be buying gas masks for yourself, and you have children or small people in the house, you need to have a properly sized mask. The smallest Avons won’t fit, and that can enable smoke inhalation for people who are especially vulnerable, i.e., small children. To solve this, we had to turn to Israeli manufacturers, as professional-grade gas masks for children seem to be a thing that they lead in research. The 4A1 youth gas mask is a great option if your family lives in an area that’s prone to forest fires, since getting to safety still requires breathing, while also protecting the wearer’s eyes from smoke or debris damage.
The big advantage of the 4A1 is the fact that it fits kids while maintaining a reasonably durable construction, rather than being simply a cheap knockoff gas mask like so many others on the market. This means that it’s made to a good standard, and is constructed of similar materials as its adult counterparts. Additionally, it uses NATO standard filters, which is a huge advantage and allows you to use the same filters for adults as you do for children, making emergency preparedness that much easier.
One drawback is that these are surplus masks, so there’s no guarantee of quality if you get one, so before you use it, be sure to test it.
- Country of manufacture: Israel
- Filter compatibility: NATO standard
- Size options: One size
Small enough for most kids
Made to a good standard
Still compatible with NATO filters
Some might not trust foreign sourcing
No way to buy new masks
Our verdict on gas masks
The fact that people have to consider the best gas masks to buy for emergencies is an uncomfortable one, but being prepared is the best way to see another day.
The Avon M50 is the best overall choice for a reason, given that it’s the military standard in so many countries and has a healthy aftermarket.
The Ops-Core SOTR is a great choice if you need quick, handy, and compact respiratory protection against airborne particles.
The 4A1 youth gas mask is a great choice for kids eight and up who need emergency respiratory protection, like in the event that you have to get your family away from the forest fires that plague hot and dry areas of the U.S.
Overall, the best gas masks to buy share something in common: They’re designed for professionals, but are available to anyone.
What to consider when buying gas masks
The biggest concerns when buying a gas mask are filter availability, age, and size, as well as whether the type of filter is suitable for what you need.
Types of gas mask filters
There are three ways to tell what kind of filter you’re getting and whether it’s good for the intended use.
Filters will often feature a string of numbers and letters such as “A3B2E3K2P3,” which can be hard to understand if you’re new to this. However, each letter indicates what it protects against, and the number next to it indicates to what level it protects, measured in PPM, or Parts Per Million.
Class 1, 2, or 3 filters
The class of a filter determines how many parts per million a filter is good to stop, in terms of concentration of toxins. Class 1 is 1,000 PPM, Class 2 is 5,000 PPM, and Class 3 is 10,000 PPM.
The ABEK code is a code that dictates which threats a filter protects against, and how much. The “A” stands for gasses and organic vapors with a boiling point greater than 65 degrees celsius; “B” stands for inorganic gasses and vapors, e.g., chlorine; “E” stands for sulfur dioxide and hydrogen chloride; and “K” stands for ammonia. There are other designations like AK (gasses and vapors with a boiling point below 65 degrees celsius) and specialized designations like CO, Hg, NO, and Reactor, which refer to the elements or compounds that they specifically stop, as well as P, which stands for “particulate.”
The colors that are displayed in various stripes on a filter are an easy way to determine what a filter stops, even if the text is illegible or in a different language. Brown is for the A designation, gray is B, green is E, and yellow is K. White is P, and the specialized codes are black for CO, red for Hg, blue for NO, and orange for Reactor.
Key features of a gas mask
The filter of the gas mask dictates what threat it protects against. This is crucial to ensure that you’re prepared for the specific atmospheric threats that are present. For instance, you need specialized filters for things like chlorine or mercury. Additionally, the filters need to be specifically designed for your gas mask in question, so make sure the type of adapter matches up.
How the gas mask seals to your face is very important for its function. There are full-face and half-face gas masks. Full-face gas masks include eye protection, and are generally the most common type that we think of as a “gas mask.” Half-face gas masks are more commonly used for airborne particles, often with painters or home renovators.
The voice projector is an attachment that allows a certain degree of transmission through the mask to allow you to communicate with others. There are three major kinds: membrane, speaker, and headset adapter.
- Membrane voice projectors simply use a thin layer of material that vibrates, transmitting one’s voice slightly better. The advantage of this is that it requires no battery, but the voice is often less clear than with powered options.
- Speaker voice projectors use a microphone inside the mask to project the wearer’s voice to an outside speaker using battery power. The advantage is that the voice is much clearer than with a membrane voice projector, but it requires a battery.
- Headset adapters take the voice from the interior microphone and siphon it into a headset to use with a radio. Oftentimes, a headset adapter will be combined with a powered voice box, meaning that there are rarely any gas masks that ONLY have a headset adapter.
Pricing for gas masks
Gas masks fall into three major categories, in terms of pricing.
- Below $100, you’ll mostly find untested or unsuitable surplus gas masks, that are usually only good for costumes.
- From $100 to $300, you’ll find tested surplus gas masks and imported gas masks, which can be good, but need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
- At $300 and up, you’ll find new full-face gas masks that are suitable for CBRNE use, all the way up to self-contained breathing gear and PAPR setups.
In general, a brand new, quality adult gas mask will cost $300 or more.
Tips and tricks
- Beards don’t inhibit a gas mask air seal — your sergeant major lied to you! Just smear petroleum jelly on the inner surface of the gas mask’s air seal, and keep it stored in a plastic bag until you’re ready to use it.
- Make sure that your gas mask is the proper size. Too tight, and it won’t cover enough of your face. Too loose, and there will be air gaps.
- Keep your gas mask turned inside out until ready to wear. That way, if you need to put it on in a hurry, you can close your eyes, hold your breath, press it to your face, put the head harness over your skull, purge, and wear.
- To purge a gas mask, put your mask on, keep your eyes closed, don’t breathe in, place your palm completely over the output valve, and blow out strongly. This should blow air out from the edges of the mask, clearing your mask of pollutants that may have gotten into the mask on the way to your face.
- Check your mask periodically for cracks, dry rot, or seal failure. Every other month is generally a good rule.
- Store gas masks in a cool, dry place to avoid dry rot or other damage.
FAQs about gas masks
You’ve got questions. Task & Purpose has answers.
Q: What gas mask do the Navy SEALs use?
A: Most U.S. forces, including the Navy SEALs, generally use the Avon M50, but some have been spotted using the Ops-Core SOTR for certain cases.
Q: Is it legal to own a gas mask?
A: In many states, there are laws that prohibit the wearing of masks with the intent to conceal one’s identity. While gas masks do cover one’s face, it’s difficult to prove that someone wore a gas mask specifically to conceal their identity. A police officer may attempt to arrest you and charge you under these laws, but they often require intent to conceal, as in the case with Virginia. Know your local laws, and consult with an attorney.
Q: Who invented gas masks?
A: Garrett Morgan, a Black scientist and inventor who was the son of a Confederate general and an enslaved woman, patented the first practical gas mask in 1914. These aided rescue workers and soldiers almost immediately, especially with the onset of World War I. He invented it due to observing how rescue workers were not able to enter the Triangle Shirtwaist company as it burned down in 1911, due to the noxious fumes, which killed 77 percent of the people who died that day. His invention was the first respirator meant to draw fresh air from below the smoke and carbon monoxide using a hose that dragged on the ground, and filter it through a wet sponge to remove smoke particles. His invention was then further developed by John Scott Haldane and others during World War I to defeat poison gas used by the Germans, who added things like chemical filters to neutralize low levels of chlorine and mustard gas.
Q: Were gas masks used in World War II?
A: Yes, gas masks were used during World War II, but not as commonly as in World War I. Open gas attacks were relatively rare, mostly performed by the Imperial Japanese against Chinese citizens and troops. The rarity of gas attacks on the Western Front was largely due to the Nazis’ blitzkrieg strategy requiring them to move too fast to wait for gas clouds to clear. Additionally, Hitler knew that his opponent, Winston Churchill, had stated openly that if the Nazis used gas, the British would respond in kind, stating “In the event of the Germans using gas on the Russians…We shall retaliate by drenching the German cities with gas on the largest possible scale.” Churchill also felt that the allies should be less squeamish in using chemical and biological weapons, which was a very controversial thing to say, and which divided his own advisors. Finally, the German logistics system was dependent upon horse-drawn carriages, and they had not developed gas masks for horses that would allow the animals to breathe enough to draw a carriage, and the German scientific development was not advanced enough to provide gasses that would defeat common allied gas masks.