Select Page

MC Heunis—O.V.S.A.C. Study No.9

JUL-SEP 2004

Little Prussia in the Veldt
Pickelhauben of the Orange Free State

historical study and re-enactment group

If you are interested in receiving any of the OVSAC’s other study pieces on Boer War artillery and re-enactment, please contact the Officer of Administration, MC Heunis at

Very few relics of military history are as distinctive and striking as the German Pickelhaube. After Prussia’s quick victory over France in 1871 the spiked black leather helmet became a symbol of military strength, moving several other armed forces around the world to imitate the Prussians and to adopt some form of spiked helmet. One of the most interesting states to do so was the small Boer republic of the Oranje Vrijstaat.


History of the Pickelhaube

In 1842 the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, introduced a tall spiked helmet for the majority of his foot troops. The helmet with its sharp spike was designed to create the image of a highly aggressive military force. Officially the head dress was called a Helm, but in typical military style the soldiers who wore it came to refer to it as Pickelhaube, which literally means “Pick Cap”.

Drawing showing the main parts of a Pickelhaube.


The original helmet (Model 1842 or M1842) consisted of a shell onto which a square front and rear visor were sewn. The shell was formed by pressing a piece of steamed leather through a large mould. After this the helmet was covered in many layers of black lacquer until it could be polished to a bright finish. The helmet was equipped with a brass reinforcing trim piece on the front visor and a brass spine at the rear. The completed helmet was almost 38cm tall with a cruciform spike base and a large gilded brass helmet plate. For most units the helmet was decorated with a tall spike, but artillery units wore a ball final to represent a cannon ball or Kugel.
The spike was ventilated by two holes on the spike neck. Around the neck of the spike was a brass decorative Perlring, literally, a “ring of pearls”. Convex brass chinscales were worn by all ranks and were secured to the helmet with a long bolt with a brass head. The spine was secured to the helmet by external bolts. Originally the front plate was also secured by two bolts that passed through the front of the plate, but in 1843 this was changed to two bolts soldered to the reverse of the plate. On the right side of the helmet a single leather cockade (Kokarde) in the Prussian national colours of black/white/black was worn under the chinscales.

Shortcomings of the original design were immediately evident, but the King had an irrational attachment to his creation. The helmet was so tall that some observers even proposed that soldiers should carry their mess kits inside the top of the helmets! Truly impractical, even by 19th century standards, it was unpopular with the troops and had the tendency to fall off during drill.

The continued dissatisfaction with the design of the Pickelhaube necessitated several developmental changes during the following years. The first major change occurred in 1856, when the convex brass chinscales were changed to flat brass chinscales for all infantry units (M1856/57). Calvary and field artillery units however continued to utilize the convex chinscales. At the same time, the leather Kokarde was changed to a smaller sheet metal version. In 1857 and again in 1860 the helmet’s height was also reduced to make the helmet less unwieldy and more practical for use.

Experience gained in Prussia’s wars against Austria and Hanover in 1866 and against France in 1871, indicated that the Pickelhaube’s design required further refinement, resulting in the M1867 and M1871 helmets. To simplify production and reduce the cost of manufacturing, the cruciform spike base was changed to a round base, while the square front peak was changed to a rounded form. The round spike base was secured to the top of the helmet by four retaining studs. On the M1867 the rear spine was removed to reduce the amount of brass used in construction, but was reintroduced in the M1871 as the helmet proved to be too weak without it. The new spine was secured to the helmet with hidden bolts soldered to the underside of the spine.


In January 1871, following the end of the Franco-Prussian War, the new German Empire was founded. The Pickelhaube was adopted by most units in the empire; each of the German Kingdoms, Dukedoms, Earldoms, Free Cities, etc., having its own unique helmet plate and state Kokarde. Many other countries also adopted some form of spiked helmet during this period, including Britain and the United States.

Some more changes to the German helmet were introduced in 1887 to reduce the amount of brass used in its construction. The front peak trim was removed, and a ribbed edge was pressed directly into the leather. For infantry and foot artillery units, the brass chinscales were changed to a leather chinstrap for enlisted ranks. For the new leather strap the threaded post and bolt used to secure the chinscales was changed to a loop and hook system. The spike was reduced in height, and the Perlring on the spike neck was removed from enlisted men’s helmet spikes. Officers, NCOs and cavalry units however continued to utilize the Perlring.

A ball-pattern Perlring on a Kugelhelm.

The M1891 chinstrap retaining loop and post.

In 1891 the loop and hook system used to hold the leather chinstrap in place on the M1887 helmet was replaced with a loop and post arrangement. A new double buckle leather chinstrap was used and the end of the strap was fitted with a brass loop with a “V” cut. The loop was designed to fit onto the corresponding M1891 post, keeping it secure but allowing easy removal. The front peak brass trim was also reintroduced as it was found that its omission weakened the helmet significantly. The M1891 further brought about a final reduction in the height of the helmet, giving it a more domed appearance – a remaining feature on all future Pickelhauben.

In 1895 the rear spine on all enlisted men’s helmets was equipped with a ventilation hole near the base of the spike. The vent was fitted with a small sliding cover, which enabled the user to increase or decrease the flow of ventilation in the helmet. To further aid in ventilation, the two vent holes on the spike neck were increased to five. The soldered bolt and nut system used to secure the front plate onto the helmet was also changed to a soldered loop that passed through corresponding holes on the front of the helmet.

In 1897 a new Reichs-Kokarde in Red-White-Black, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kaiser Wilhelm I, was introduced for all ranks of the German Imperial Army. The new Kokarde was worn on the right side of the helmet, while the different state Kokarden were moved to the left.

After the outbreak of the First World War, the shiny brass and German silver fittings on enlisted men’s helmets were changed to steel and were painted in various shades of grey. This was done primarily to free up brass and silver for the war effort and to make the wearer less conspicuous. Another effort to make the wearer less visible was to make the spike removable. The new pattern spike was slotted and fitted into a corresponding bayonet-style lug on the round spike base. These changes brought about the final and most common Pickelhaube, the M1915.

Due to the Allied blockade of Germany, a shortage of leather (imported from Argentina) resulted in the German army making helmets from Ersatz (replacement) materials. Manufacturers of kitchen utensils were called on to turn out helmets of thin steel and tin. As the war continued, many other materials were also used, including felt, vulcanised fibre, cloth covered cork, and even paper mache. Some of these helmets were equipped with brass and silver fittings as manufacturers used up remaining parts from pre-1915 helmets, while other carried M1915 grey steel fittings, or even a combination of both.

The end of the Pickelhaube had dawned. Neither the leather nor the Ersatz steel Pickelhaube helmets offered any protection in combat, and therefore the Army Medical Corps demanded that new head gear should be developed to reduce the number of head wounds. In February 1916 a steel helmet (Stahlhelm) was introduced in small numbers to the front line troops engaged in the Battle of Verdun. The resulting reduction in the number of head wounds suffered by the soldiers lead to the general replacement of the Pickelhaube. In the end the German army used Stahlhelms in greater numbers, but it was the Pickelhaubethat left a lasting impression on world history.

The Free State Artillery Pickelhaube
In November 1880 FWR Albrecht, formerly of the 4th Prussian Guard Artillery of Berlin and a veteran of the Franco-Prussian War, was appointed as captain and commanding officer of the Oranje Vrijstaat Artillerie Corps (OVSAC). Under his competent leadership the OVSAC was to undergo a major turnabout. (Not so sure…
4. Garde-Feldartillerie-Regiment was not formed until 1899 and in any case was based in Potsdam. Albrecht was not a former Prussian Artillery Officer as claimed by some. I believe Albrecht was a gunner in the Franco-German War and probably rose to NCO rank before leaving Prussian service.Joe)

Earlier Free State Artillery uniforms and helmets were based on those of the British Royal Artillery, but in 1885 Albrecht started to introduce Prussian style uniforms. The new uniforms resembled the dress of the 2nd and 4th German Guard Artillery regiments and were imported from Germany. At least two different suppliers were used, CF Wulfert and Eduard Sachs, both Berlin based military effects and uniform factories.

The switchover from British to German uniforms was gradual and various photographs show OVSAC Gunners wearing Prussian style tunics with the earlier British style helmets. Exactly when the Pickelhaubemade its first appearance in Bloemfontein is not known, but it is suspected to have been in the late 1880s or early 1890s.

Major FWR Albrecht in officer’s undress.


Eduard Sachs’ label on the inside of a surviving OVSAC Pickelhaube carry case preserved at the War Museum of the Boer Republics.

Because the Free State’s helmets were privately purchased they differed from the standard German army issue Pickelhaube. In Germany private-purchase pattern helmets were referred to as Eigentums-helm or also known as Extra-helm or EigetumsstückEigentum translates to “property”, indicating the item was privately purchased by an individual. In the German army any soldier was allowed to purchase an Eigentums-helm, but it usually depended on the wealth of the individual and therefore they were mostly worn by the better off One-Year Volunteers (Einjährig-Freiwilliger) and Officer-Candidates (Fähnrich). The Eigentums-helm was of a better quality than the standard army issued helmets and often incorporated style and comfort features normally only found on helmets issued to officers.
Helmet Construction:
The Free State helmet consisted of a domed shell, similar to the German M1891, with a round front and square rear visor. The helmet was finished in a bright polished black, while helmet fittings such as the front plate, ball final and base, front visor trim and rear spine were manufactured from gilded brass.

Front Plate: The one-piece stamped gilded brass front plate was of the same design as those worn on the earlier Royal Artillery pattern helmets. It consisted of a large eight-pointed star with a Free State coat-of-arms and scroll (bandeau), reading “Oranje Vrystaat”, surrounded by a laurel wreath. The stamped plate was secured to the front of the helmet by two threaded bolts soldered to the reverse of the plate and passing through the front of the helmet before being fastened by two flat square brass nuts.

Kokarden: Unlike some researchers have claimed in the past, only one Kokarde was worn under the chinscales; on the right hand side of the helmet. The Kokarde was manufactured from one piece of metal with a small centre hole (pre-1891 design) and finished in enamel paint in the colours of the lines on the state flag, white/orange/white.

As was the case in the German army, the Kokarden on the Free State Artillery helmets seem to have differed according to rank. Surviving examples show at least two types of Kokarden in use:

OVSAC officer’s Pickelhaube, reportedly that of Major Albrecht. National Museum, Bloemfontein.


  • Privates wore a plain stamped sheet metal Kokarde with a serrated edge.
  • Officers wore a brass one-piece Kokarde with an intricate “ribbon” or “waffle” pattern and without the serrated edge.

In the German army NCO Kokarden were similar to those worn by Privates, but had an additional ring with a distinctive diagonal ribbing. It is not known whether this was also implemented on the Free State Artillery helmets and to date no surviving examples could be found.

Private (left) and officer (right) pattern Kokarden. War Museum of the Boer Republics, Bloemfontein.

Right and left hand side of OVSAC officer’s Pickelhaube. War Museum of the Boer Republics.


Kugel: Being an artillery unit, the helmets of all ranks carried a brass ball final with a round base. In the German army the height of helmet spikes was set at 95mm for officers and 85mm for all other ranks. On privately purchased helmets, like the ones imported by the Free State, the spikes generally tended to be taller and of a better quality. The ball spike top was removable to enable an orange and white falling horse hair plume (Trichter and Haarbusch) to be mounted to the helmet for full dress purposes.

Horse hair plume and Perlring detail on OVSAC officer’s helmet. War Museum of the Boer Republics.

Perlring: The neck of the ball spike on Free State helmets was decorated by a brass Perlring. Privates and NCOs wore the regular ball-pattern Perlring, while Officers’ helmets utilized a more elaborate pattern sometimes referred to as the “Dart and Egg” pattern.

Base Mounts: The ball spike base on Private’s and NCO’s helmets was secured to the helmet shell with four domed threaded screws and was fastened on the underside with flat square brass nuts. Officer’s helmets utilized small 8-pointed stars on a threaded post to secure the spike base.

On the surviving officer’s helmet of Lt Johan Böning, in the collection of the War Museum of the Boer Republics in Bloemfontein, the ball spike base is held in place by three domed and one star screw. Lt Böning was a one-pip lieutenant, but it is doubted whether his rank was indicated by the number of stars on the base and normally all four screws would have been stars for all officer ranks.

Chinscales: Like the German Guard Artillery units, all ranks of the Free State Artillery Corps wore convex chinscales. The chinscale strap consisted of two halves with a small lug connecting the two thinner ends together. The other wider ends of the strap were secured to the helmet with a Rosette which had two split prongs that were bent back inside the helmet.

Visor and Trim: Visors on privately purchased helmets were made from higher quality leather and sewn to the helmet shell with fine thread. The visor trim was also of a higher quality, around 6mm wide, curved in shape and considerably thinner than the German army issue.

Rear Spine: On the rear of the Free State helmet a pre-1895 plain brass spine ran from the spike base to the bottom of the rear visor to add strength and rigidity to the helmet body. The spine was secured to the helmet with hidden bolts soldered to the underside of the spine and fastened with flat square brass nuts on the inside of the helmet. Privately purchased rear spines did not incorporate the M1895 spine ventilation hole and sliding cover and were of a higher quality than the German army’s pre-1895 spine.

Inside and back of OVSAC Pickelhaube showing square nuts, square tongue liners and pre-1895 spine.

Liners: Free State helmets were lined with squared leather tongues. This pattern was commonly encountered on Eigentums-helm and was referred to as the “Extra” pattern. The leather was of a higher quality and it was felt that this style of liner afforded more comfort than the rounded tongues of the standard German army helmet. As far as could be ascertained Free State helmets did not have cloth liners on the undersides of the visors as was the case with some German officer’s and privately purchased helmets.
President Brand Rifles  

The Free State Artillery Corps was not the only Free State military unit to wear the Pickelhaube. In September 1888 a volunteer unit, the President Brand Rifles, was founded in Bloemfontein to “exercise the young burghers of the City Bloemfontein with rifles”.

Four young members of the President Brand Rifles showing their “unpopular” spike-topped Pickelhaube helmets.

This unit’s uniforms were also made by CF Wulfert of Berlin and were received in February 1889. The helmets consisted of a domed Pickelhaube similar to the pattern worn by the Artillery Corps, but with a smooth spike in stead of the ball final. Unfortunately none of the original helmets are known to have survived, but contemporary photographs show an eight-pointed star helmet plate (not the same as worn by the artillery), a Perlring on the spike neck, a round base as well as chinscales.

Initially the German uniforms were received well, but since most of the townspeople and members of the unit were of a British background, the Pickelhaube soon became unpopular. A local newspaper, The Friend of the Free State wrote: “…the helmet is the only thing which does not give general satisfaction, it being locally described as a flat Bismarkian arrangement”. By 1890 the members of the unit openly spoke out against the uniforms and another Free State newspaper, De Expressreported: “…at present a rifleman in full dress looks like a bad cross between a flunkey and a railway guard.”

Photos of the President Brand Rifles seem to indicate that the Pickelhaube helmets were later replaced with more British-looking pith helmets. One set of photographs of President Brand Rifle NCOs show white tropical cork helmets decorated with the same fittings as those found on the unit’s Pickelhaube, suggesting that the fittings on the Pickelhauben were removed and simply fitted to the new cork helmets. Summary

As with most “impractical” military things, the Pickelhaube did not see wide scale use in the Free State and no recorded instances of Free State artillerymen wearing their helmets during the Boer War could be found. Nevertheless the adoption of these helmets remains a very interesting and often overlooked part of South Africa’s military history. It is unfortunate that only a hand full of Free State helmets are known to have survived and it is hoped that more looted examples will one day be discovered in overseas collections and museums.


We would like to thankMr Tony Schnurr for the permission to utilise the extremely useful information from his “Kaiser’s Bunker” web-site articles on Pickelhaube evolution and rank identification.



  • Schnurr, T: Imperial German Pickelhaube Evolution 1842–1915, Kaiser’s Bunker website,
  • Schnurr, T: Imperial German Pickelhaube and Rank Identification, Kaiser’s Bunker website,
  • Steenkamp, JA: Die Vrystaatse Vrywillige Militêre Eenhede 1854-1899, Militaria 10/1, 1980
  • Swemmer, TPE: Die Geskiedenis van die Vrystaatse Artillerie, MA-UOVS, Bloemfontein, 1953
  • Walmsley, AB: Staats Artillerie van de O.V.S. Uniform and Organization, Africana Notes and News, Vol.16 / No.4, December 1964


Photo Collections Consulted:

  • Voortrekker Monument Research Centre, Pretoria
  • War Museum of the Boer Republics, Bloemfontein


Uniform Collections Consulted:

    • National Museum, Bloemfontein
    • War Museum of the Boer Republics, Bloemfontein