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Published Mar 29, 2022 2:20 PM

The Global War on Terror has greatly accelerated the development of personal protective equipment, especially the proliferation of body armor. Ballistic helmets have changed from bulky head protection designed to stop only pistol rounds to lightweight polyethylene set-ups that can stop AK rounds at point-blank range. Along with improved protection, modern helmets also support various attachments and accessories such as night vision goggles and communication headsets.

But all that protection and additional features come at a price. High-quality ballistic helmets aren’t cheap, but they’re essential in dangerous environments. With so much at stake, how can you be sure about what you buy? That’s where we come in. Through hands-on testing and thorough research, we curated a list of the best ballistics helmets available today.

Best Overall

Ops-Core is arguably the gold standard when it comes to ballistic helmets, continuing to innovate with new and updated designs. This new generation of helmets, which I saw at SHOT Show 2022 in Las Vegas this past January, offers protection from the conventional pistol rounds and fragmentation while also protecting against lead-core AK rounds at any angle and at distances as low as 10 feet.

The Ops-Core FAST XR is remarkably stable and supports night vision devices and helmets with minimal wobble. It’s also extremely lightweight, coming in at just north of three pounds in size XL, which is the size I wear. In addition, due to establishing themselves as the gold standard, nearly every accessory is designed for the Ops-Core helmet platform, meaning that most communication headset adapters, helmet covers, and strap replacement systems will be compatible with no extra modifications needed.

Unfortunately, being the gold standard means that Ops-Core is hard to get, and at the time of writing, the lead time for Ops-Core helmets is 120 days. In addition to this, the stability of the Ops-Core comes at the expense of some comfort, which can get irritating over long periods of time. Finally, there’s the high price tag of $2,100, although that price can be lowered if you contact Gentex for military pricing if you’re trying to buy one for professional use.

Bottom line, there’s a reason why any high cut helmet is usually colloquially called an “ops core,” and it’s because Ops-Core leads the pack in terms of features, standardization, and protection. When it comes to the best ballistic helmets, this is the cream of the crop.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: USA
  • Size range: 20.88- to 25.13-inch head circumference
  • Weight: 2.7 to 3.1 pounds
  • Protection level: IIIA plus protection from 7.62×39 lead core
PROS

Will stop a lead-core 7.62×39 round at 10 feet

Rock-solid fit

Outstanding aftermarket

CONS

Cost-prohibitive for many civilian users

Less comfortable liner

Limited purchasing quantities

Best Value

Your average junior enlisted person or officer isn’t going to have thousands of dollars to spend on an Ops-Core, Team Wendy, Avon, or other brands on this list, but they still may want a high cut helmet that accepts comms and will also potentially save their life.

The Highcom Striker offers true IIIA protection for an affordable price while also providing many of the features that buyers want. The Highcom striker comes with a Wilcox G34 mount and accessory rails, enabling the easy mounting of night vision devices, flashlights, and headsets. Despite being inexpensive, the Highcom Striker comes in at just under three pounds, which is suitably light for long-term use.

The biggest shortcoming of the Highcom striker is the strap system. It’s difficult to use, makes a mess of loose ends, and is much less intuitive than other, more expensive options. You can fix this with aftermarket straps from Team Wendy, but that’s an extra cost on top of the helmet.

Additionally, one of the things you’re losing with an IIIA high cut at this cost is lightweight, since 2.9 pounds is heavy when compared to some higher-end helmets. Finally, when I got this helmet, the rails were improperly attached and were gapped from the shell of the helmet, which is a minor QC issue that makes it seem like there was little care taken with the construction of this helmet.

Highcom is a reputable, made-in-America brand that has been producing armor for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that you’ll have to take out loans to pay for quality head protection. The Striker is the most affordable out-of-the-box ballistic helmet solution that you can trust to stand up to the hazards that come with professional usage. It’s not the lightest or most comfortable, and you may want to update the straps and pads down the road, but it works and works well.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: USA
  • Size range: 21.1- to 26-inch head circumference
  • Weight: 2.5 to 2.9 pounds
  • Protection level: NIJ IIIA (pistol rounds and frag)
PROS

Relatively inexpensive

Fully-featured

Rock-solid and officially certified

CONS

Heavier than more expensive IIIA options

Terrible straps

Mild fit and finish issues

This Avon N49 is light to the point that when people pick it up, their first question is whether or not it’s a real ballistic helmet. This helmet takes advantage of ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene and boltless rails to cut weight wherever possible, leaving a helmet that’s NIJ IIIA rated but weighs no more than a standard bike helmet. The Avon N49 is the optimal helmet for those who want to save on weight anywhere they can, but who still need head protection from incoming rounds and shrapnel.

Weight may be the biggest advantage of the Avon N49, but it’s still a fully-featured helmet. The N49 comes with either conventional straps or a dial liner, the latter being the model that I have. The helmet has a very stable fit, aided in part by the dial liner, and also features the same D3O TRUST Stealth pads as the Highcom Striker. Finally, this ultralight helmet won’t break the bank, still being competitively priced when compared to heavier options with equivalent protection from other large brands.

The Avon N49 may be light, but it’s not the most comfortable, owing in no small part to the way the proprietary boltless dial liner and straps are set up. The semi-rigid plastic band that wraps around the wearer’s head gets uncomfortable after long periods of wear, requiring loosening to alleviate headaches. The rails and NVG mount are another issue, with the rails being proprietary and both the rails and NVG mount being very large and chunky. Finally, the only company that made helmet covers is Agilite, they only came in two colors, multicam, and ranger green, and I had to have a MARPAT one custom-made.

Bottom line, this is a terrific helmet for people who want to save weight wherever possible, and who want a thoroughly modern helmet that provides real ballistic protection without being overly heavy. While it lacks comfort, that’s fixable, and I’ve personally counteracted many of the comfort issues with aftermarket pads. The stock dial liner is a pain and is a factor that should be considered by prospective buyers.

Why We Picked It

The Avon N49 is my personal helmet, and it’s insanely light. While I picked it because I got a deal I couldn’t refuse while shopping for helmets, it’s a legitimate choice for the weight-conscious user, and provides everything you need in a helmet in an unusual package. It puts itself into a niche, but nobody else comes close in terms of protection-to-weight ratio.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: USA
  • Size range: <22.5 to 23.5+ inches head circumference
  • Weight: 1.9 to 2.2 pounds
  • Protection level: NIJ IIIA (pistol rounds and frag)
PROS

Ultralight

Included rails, straps, and pads are good

Fairly priced

CONS

Rails and straps are proprietary

Uncomfortable dial liner system

Large rails and night vision bracket

Best Ballistic Helmet for Comfort

Compared to Team Wendy, everyone else makes helmets that you fit your head into, rather than helmets that fit to your head. Starting after the tragic skiing injury and death of the owner’s daughter, Wendy Moore, Team Wendy has been producing unusual and effective helmets that prioritize safety and ergonomics above all else. Featuring a design that’s free of large bolts to weaken the shell or turn into secondary fragments in the event of a blast, the Exfil Ballistic SL is the most out-of-the-box comfortable helmet on this list, and possibly on the market.

Team Wendy’s helmets feature a skull-hugging design, innovative pads, and the most comfortable dial liner on the market. It’s also very light, at a maximum of 2.3 pounds before accessories, further enhancing the comfort. The fit and finish of the helmet are fantastic, with none of the rough edge paint that I’ve found on new helmets from other brands, even at this price point. The proprietary rails are also remarkably easy to use, even if they require different mounts for things like headsets. This is because they feature M-Lok sections that can be used to directly mount headsets or lights, or can be converted into Picatinny rails.

Unfortunately, with innovation comes proprietary technology, and the Team Wendy Exfil SL is no different. The helmet shape is markedly different from ACH or Ops-Core high cut helmets, so Team Wendy-specific helmet covers will be a must. Another issue is that despite Team Wendy helmet pads being world-class, they’re not the most comfortable, and I still prefer 4D Deluxe pads. Finally, Team Wendy only offers two sizes of the helmet, so there’s not as much customization as with other companies.

Bottom line, there’s a good reason why Team Wendy remains a popular wildcard choice for ballistic head protection. Nobody can beat them for out-of-the-box comfort, and if you want a helmet that fits like a glove out of the box, this is the option for you.

Why We Picked It

The Team Wendy Exfil Ballistic SL is a comfort-first option that encompasses everything that makes a ballistic helmet great, and occupies a goldilocks zone of sorts by balancing ballistic protection, fit, weight, and comfort into a very user-friendly package. It’s not the most flexible system in terms of sizing and accessories, and you basically have to go all-in on the ecosystem of Team Wendy products, but it will be money well spent.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: USA
  • Size range: Size 1 and 2 helmet shells (20.5- to 23.5-inch, and 23- to 24.75-inch respectively)
  • Weight: 2.2 to 2.3 pounds
  • Protection level: NIJ IIIA (pistol rounds and frag)
PROS

Comfortable and ergonomic

Outstanding fit and finish

A balance of weight, protection, and comfort

CONS

Rails, straps, and helmet shape are proprietary

Limited sizing

Some users dislike the Team Wendy pads

Best Surplus Ballistic Helmet

If you need a helmet but are on a limited budget, you may want to consider buying a reputable surplus helmet (I recommend an ECH helmet) and modernizing it. Here are a few suggestions for upgrading your surplus helmet.

4D Deluxe Helmet Pads: These are the most comfortable pads I’ve ever worn. Once warmed up and broken in, they’re absolutely luxurious. The only downside is that they retain water and sweat, so for anything near the water, you may want to consider something less porous.

Team Wendy Cloudline Helmet Liner: This is my winter choice of pads, since the comfort pads don’t harden in the cold weather, unlike the 4D pads. The downside here is that they’re much more complicated to put in than the 4D pads.

Team Wendy Cam Fit liner: This strap system will give you a much more stable cam-fit retention system. It’s equipped with easy-to-adjust straps to make your helmet more comfortable over long periods of time. And, it allows you to tighten or loosen the fit on the fly. The only downside is that it’s over $100 for a pair of straps.

Revision Batlskin Rails: If you want to mount accessory rails (and for military readers, if you’re allowed to wear them), you can easily mount them to the outside, allowing you to mount lights and cameras. The downside is that you may need to get longer screws to mount the rails to the helmet, given the added thickness of the rails, which is doubly true for the ECH.

There are pros and cons to upgrading your helmet incrementally. A pro is you’ll be able to use it right away and you’ll be able to make changes when you can afford to. However, a con is that you’ll end up spending a similar amount of money if you had just bought a new one outright.

Why you should trust us

For this article, I drew on my experience owning, wearing, and selling helmets from Gentex, Team Wendy, 3M, and more. In addition to providing samples, manufacturers also offered insights into production methods and explained their reasoning behind certain features. Finally, I consulted John Sun of Apex Armor Solutions. Along with being a reputable armor dealer and a wellspring of knowledge on the topic of body armor, he’s also a personal friend. 

All picks on this list are based on my personal experience. I wore, handled, and tested each one. Additionally, I made my selections from reputable brands and options that are used by professionals to some degree. I excluded lower-end brands that are not officially tested to NIJ standards and cheap foreign knockoffs. 

Cuts of ballistic helmets

Ballistic helmets come in two primary shapes: high cut and full cut. Most of the helmets on this list are high cuts. They allow for the mounting of powered hearing protection, which is a must-have in an environment where gunfire is expected. 

High cut, mid cut, ultra high cut

The various “cuts” of helmets refer to how the helmet fits over your ears and accommodate communication headsets. They’re listed as mid cut, high cut, and ultra high cut. They range from having some ear cover to a flat ear cover to no ear cover. 

The downside is that these cuts of helmets leave the sides of your head vulnerable to shrapnel and incoming rounds, so you have to weigh whether or not the added convenience of powered hearing protection or a headset is worth the marginal reduction in protection.

The best ballistic helmets to keep your head safe
Types of helmet cuts

Full cut

Full cut helmets cover the entirety of your skull and some have an extended “skirt” that covers your neck and ears. They’re the most common in military issue, and they include the ACH, ECH, LWH, and the new Army IHPS, also known as the Avon F70. They provide good protection without extending into the realm of full-face protection or other types of enhanced helmets. 

The downside to this profile of helmet is that it’s difficult to mount headsets or hearing protection underneath the helmet, so you’ll need to put them on separately and weave microphones, cables, and earcups through the straps.

Ballistic helmet materials

Gear companies primarily use two materials to make ballistic helmets: Kevlar and ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE). While both are stronger than steel, one is a fabric and the other is a plastic.  

Kevlar

Kevlar is the brand name for a type of Aramid fiber often used to make bulletproof material like helmets and vests. Compared to helmets made from UHMWPE, a Kevlar helmet, or Aramid helmet, is slightly heavier but less expensive. The main drawback to Kevlar is susceptibility to delamination due to things like exposure to sunlight, but you can prolong the life of the material with a helmet cover.  

Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE)

In layman’s terms, UHMWPE is a very dense plastic. While the material isn’t necessarily new, what is new is the ability to form it into the shape of a helmet without being prohibitively expensive. Most high-tech brands layer UHMWPE with other materials like carbon fiber to create a truly rifle-rated helmet. Compared to Kevlar, UHMWPE is stronger but also more expensive and usually thicker. 

Key features of ballistic helmets 

When you’re shopping for a ballistic helmet, the key features to look at involve mounting accessories and safety.

NVG mount

A night vision goggles mount on a ballistic helmet will come one of three ways: single-hole, three-hole, or boltless design. 

  • A single-hole design is the most common and usually the least expensive. With it, you fasten the bracket using a single screw that runs through the center of the front of the helmet. 
  • A three-hole design is the most secure and usually more expensive than a single hole. The triangle shape inherently offers more points of contact with the helmet. 
  • With a boltless design, the mount clamps to a rail on the helmet. It’s the least common of the three, but growing in popularity. 

While there is a fourth mount — a ball detent — it’s often limited to aviation helmets, which is not represented in this guide. 

The best ballistic helmets to keep your head safe
Types of NVG mounts

Boltless strap and rail

Boltless straps and rails mount to the helmet using Velcro, plastic clamps, or some other type of mechanism instead of screws. It’s a notable improvement because holes add weak points in the helmet and bolts could create secondary fragmentation if the helmet is impacted by an explosive blast.    

Retention system

Most modern helmets feature some sort of retention mechanism other than the chin strap. It’s usually a strap system or collar that tightens around your head. It provides extra security and comfort, so you can wear your helmet unbuckled like John Wayne. 

Helmet pad

A quality helmet pad will provide you with comfort and, more importantly, more protection from head trauma. The thick cushion, usually about 20mm, can reduce the impact of a bullet, shrapnel, or even blunt force. 

Ballistic rating

Most manufacturers give ballistic helmets a threat level rating based on guidelines created by the National Institute of Justice, a research wing of the U.S. Department of Justice. NIJ ratings for ballistic materials identify protection against specific firearm rounds and fragmentation. 

While NIJ has standards for ballistic helmets, more often than not you’ll see companies use standards for ballistic materials instead. The former is more comprehensive and expands the ratings two-fold (or six ratings total). It’s fairly common to find helmets rated as Level III-A (like the ones on this list), which means they’ll protect against handgun cartridges like .44 Magnum to 9mm. 

According to Team Wendy, companies look at two measurements when following NIJ testing guidelines. First, they look at the indentation left by the bullet’s impact. “[B]eyond a certain amount, the helmet fails,” the company says. And, second, the helmet needs to stop more than 50 percent of the fragmentation from penetrating. 

Pricing considerations for ballistic helmets

Budget

Given their critical nature, the starting price for a quality ballistic helmet is fairly high. You can find some surplus helmets for less than $700, but you should inspect them before buying.

Mid-range

From $800 to $1,500 MSRP is medium for a quality ballistic helmet. In this category, you’ll find brands like Ops-Core, Team Wendy, MTEK, and Galvion. These helmets are often made of high-end materials and come pre-loaded with features like enhanced helmet pads, premium straps, rails, and night vision brackets.

Premium

Starting at $1,500, you get the bleeding edge of helmet technology. This is where you’ll find lightweight, rifle-resistant helmets that can stop intense threats like steel core AK rounds at distances of 10 feet. These options include the Ops-Core RF1, all the way up to the Highcom Arditi helmet, which provides protection against lead core 5.56 and even 7.62×51 NATO. These helmets can retail for up to $3,600, but again, how much is your life worth? 

FAQs on ballistic helmets

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: Is a ballistic helmet worth it if you’re not military?

A: There are many reasons to own a ballistic helmet if you’re not in the military. For instance, many SWAT officers wear one when serving high-risk warrants, and it’s common for reporters who are reporting in active war zones to wear one. Helmets are also the most secure platform for mounting night vision, as compared to headbands and skull caps, but a bump helmet is just as secure with less cost. Ultimately, it will be up to the end-user to decide if ballistic protection for their head is worthwhile.

A: The short answer to this is that local laws vary. The long answer is that in certain states, you cannot buy body armor in the mail and have to go to an authorized dealer, and in nearly every state is it illegal to own any kind of body armor if you are a convicted felon. Additionally, in some states, wearing body armor while committing a crime of any sort leads to an enhanced sentence. Know your local laws and proceed with caution.

Q: What is the difference between bump and ballistic helmets?

A: A bump helmet only provides protection against blunt force trauma, hence the name “bump helmet.” Ballistic helmets are made of specially composed materials designed to deflect or stop bullets and fragmentation. It is very important that you make sure that you are wearing the right helmet for the right job, so if you anticipate ballistic threats, don’t be caught wearing a bump helmet.

Q: Is there a Level 4 ballistic helmet?

A: As of the time of writing, there is no helmet that reliably stops a direct hit from M2 armor-piercing rounds at a distance of 10 feet, which is more or less the standard for NIJ IV. Additionally, rounds of this caliber enter into the realm of muzzle energies that would cause traumatic brain injury, whiplash, and concussion simply from the actual force of the round impacting and being stopped by the helmet, making this a very hard thing to achieve.

Q: What is a Level 3 ballistic helmet?

A: A true level III ballistic helmet will stop a 7.62 NATO round at 10 feet. To my knowledge, there is only one helmet that achieves this without using additional armor applique, and that is the Highcom Arditi. Additionally, the National Institute of Justice does not officially certify helmets, so it’s mostly on the manufacturer to test that their helmets can do the same thing as the NIJ standard for plates. Reference this link for more information.

Q: What is the strongest ballistic helmet?

A: Of the helmets we surveyed, the Ops-Core RF1 and the Highcom Arditi are the current top contenders for raw ballistic protection. Both of them will stop serious rifle threats, and the Ops-Core rated for that hit on every part of the helmet, whether it’s on the edge or on the top of the cranium.

Q: What ballistic helmets do SEALs use?

A: The short answer to this question is “whatever the hell they want,” but the long answer is that Navy SEALs have been spotted wearing Ops-Core helmets most frequently, with specific versions like the Ops-Core FAST maritime being specifically designed for their use. Rest assured that whatever the latest and greatest is, generously funded Special Operations units are probably using it in some capacity.

Q: Can civilians buy ballistic helmets?

A: It depends on the specific model and where the individual in question lives. Certain retailers and certain manufacturers will not sell certain items without proof of military or law enforcement affiliation. This is mostly done for liability reasons and a desire to clamp down on people trying to sell high-tech helmets to Russia and China to be reverse-engineered.

Q: Are ballistic helmets controlled for export?

A: Ballistic helmets, personal protective equipment, and military gear, in general, are governed under the International Trade in Arms Regulation, or ITAR. It is a severe offense to sell, give, or trade these items outside of the borders of the United States without specific licensure from the American government. Violating this regulation can lead to severe penalties such as fines, prison time, and asset confiscation. There is a significant black market for American tactical gear, especially in countries where MilSim Airsoft is popular, such as Europe and Asia. DO NOT buy personal protective equipment to be resold to a foreigner, or risk severe penalties, no matter how many multiples of the MSRP they offer to pay you. When in doubt, ask the manufacturer if the item in question is controlled under this regulation.

Task & Purpose and its partners may earn a commission if you purchase a product through one of our links. We independently evaluate gear by putting products in the hands of subject matter experts. The products we test may be purchased by Task & Purpose, our staff, or provided for review by a manufacturer. No matter the source, our testing procedures and our assessments remain free from third-party influence. Learn more about our product review process.

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