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Skull session: We walk you through the best helmet upgrades on the market

Jul. 28, 2011 - 12:58PM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 28, 2011 - 12:58PM  |  
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You don't want to use your Kevlar helmet for a sink the way your grandfather may have back in the day. But your helmet still can do more than provide ballistic protection.

Lights and cameras now ride comfortably and securely on your lid without duct tape or MRE packing remnants holding them in place. Even your NVGs can get a comfort and security upgrade with a few of this month's GearScout picks.

Basic upgrades

• Mounting systems: The Ops-Core ARC ($84) takes all the work out of hanging stuff on your head. The accessory rail connector is a set of two rails that mount to an ACH using the chin-strap mounting point screws, meaning there's no drilling involved. Pull the old screws and replace them with the ARC kit's longer screws and you're ready to slide and click rail-mounted gear onto your nog. Total install time is less than five minutes. You can add bungee cords ($14) that pull night-vision goggles close to your face for a more stable ride.

• NVG shroud: You've probably got one of the one-hole jobs that spins and slaps back and forth whenever you march under goggles. If you can, ditch it and upgrade to a three-hole shroud. These are lower profile because they don't have hooks to reach over the helmet rim. Look at the Norotos Universal Shroud ($200) or Ops-Core VAS shroud ($84).

• Liner: The final, and perhaps most important piece of a basic helmet. Take a look at the Ops-Core ACH Occ-Dial liner kit (not pictured). It's a $130 upgrade that replaces the entire interior with a super-stabilized fit. It's adjusted by turning a dial on the back. We've used this system and it works. Installation is a little involved but worth the effort. The real benefit comes when you put on your NVGs and feel how they don't pull your helmet down over your eyes. The only downside to the Occ-Dial is a slight increase in heat retention because of the large forehead pad.

Night-vision goggles

• Mounts: If you can persuade your command to ditch the big rhino NVG mounts, get them to go with the more compact Wilcox L4 G24 NVG mount ($599) instead. This is a breakaway mount that'll stay put until the first time you catch your NVGs on a doorframe. When not in use, the L4s fold up in a more compact configuration than the standard-issue rhino mount. Wilcox makes its own high-speed PVS-14 ARM ($264) with or without built-in switching. It also makes a "7B" adapter ($58) that will take your current PVS-14 J-arm or the PVS-7b dock mount if you want to save a few bucks.

• Lanyards: You'll want a way to hang on to those NVGs when it gets down to asses and elbows on the LZ. Consider investing at least $15 in a Down Range Gear NOD Retention Lanyard kit ($11-$15). They make versions for one-hole and three-hole shrouds that offer an alternative to the 550 cord solution. Unscrew your NVG shroud, use the existing screw holes to put their nylon fabric backer in place and reinstall your shroud. Now you've got a sturdy mount point for a side-release buckle that's home for a length of shock cord that zip-ties to your NVG. With this setup, you don't have to worry about a 550 cord catching on everything around. Another option is the Wilcox retractable NVG lanyard ($75). This one screws to your shroud and has a thin lanyard that stays out of the way. It's more refined than the Down Range Gear solution, offers more lanyard and lets you run either a breakaway or high-retention mode.

• Ballasts: To keep things from dragging your NVG-mounted helmet over your eyes, we suggest you get an Original SOE NSW Helmet Ballast ($55-$60). Originally designed for Navy SEALs, it has become a staple of the spec-ops community. It's a Velcro-backed pouch with three compartments. The two big pockets hold a standard MS2000 strobe and a set of six CR123 and six AA batteries in a pull-out tray. The third pocket runs along the back and is meant to hold additional weight, usually in the form of lead decoy anchor straps ($15 from Bass Pro Shops). If your helmet doesn't have Velcro pile, head over to Home Depot or Walmart and grab some 2-by-4-inch adhesive-backed Velcro tape to secure it.

If you've got any extra Velcro, use it to mount a blood-type patch. Mil-Spec Monkey ($3.50) makes easy-to-read patches. Or, you could use a Sharpie — but the patch looks cooler.

• Filter covers: These amber filters snap into place over the front element of your NVG. They reduce transition blindness when going from NVGs to low light and significantly reduce the green light splash on the wearer's face. Look at the Wilcox NVG Filter Cover ($98) or the Orion Night Vision Filter ($150). Both are operator grade and provide similar benefits, such as 98 percent transmission of the NVG image.

Beacons

Anyone who doesn't want to get shot in the back or blown up by an AC-130H Spectre gunship runs some kind of identify-friend-or-foe beacon. The stock model you've likely used is the super-boxy, but trusty, MS2000 strobe. To cut some size and weight while adding durability, take a look at the S&S Precision Manta Strobe ($250). It's molded to the shape of your helmet, attaches with Velcro and runs in IR or visible green modes. So you don't run through your CR123 battery, the Manta vibrates when it turns on and off in IR mode. If you really want to go light and aren't worried about being waterproof, the Cejay Phoenix Jr. Beacon ($25) snaps to the top of a 9-volt battery and puts out an IR beacon for hours.

Camera mounts

Mounting cameras to your lid has always been a bit of a do-it-yourself enterprise, but this year a few mounts have come out that play nicely out of the box with your Contour HD, GoPro HD and VIO POV HD cameras. The GoPro NVG Helmet Mount ($30) snaps into the NVG shroud on the front of your helmet. If you run in the Contour crowd, check out Ops-Core's Contour HD camera mount ($13) — you'll need to have an ARC rails kit, and it only works with the bare camera, not the waterproof case. Ops-Core's Single Clamp ($15) will mount a VIO POV on an ARC rail. It'll also hold a flashlight, or any cylindrical device.

Lights and extras

Aside from camera mounts, there are a host of other adapters for the Ops-Core ARC rail system. There's an Ops-Core adapter ($12) to slide a Surefire X300 weapon light onto an ARC rail if you want a headlamp that's just shy of a car headlight. Ops-Core offers two sizes of swivel clips for goggles ($10), oxygen mask adapters ($59-$76), Picatinny rail adapter ($10), and universal Wing-Loc Adapter ($4) for the DIY crowd. That should cover just about anything you'd want on your helmet in combat.

Some of the best bets in tactical admin lighting right now come in the form of the tiny Princeton Tec MPLS Switch ($40). Its flexible arm and dual-color output shine admin light where you want it. Its series of MPLS mounts lets you put it on an ARC rail, Picatinny rail, helmet lip or PALS webbing. The Princeton Tec Remix Pro MPLS ($80) is a 100-lumen light that snaps into your NVG shroud, onto a headlamp strap or onto your PALS webbing.

Our favorite mil-spec helmet light is the Streamlight Sidewinder Compact ($80), followed by Energizer's Hard Case Tactical helmet light ($134). Both have plenty of power, colors and mounting options that boost your SA without compromise. Surefire's Helmet Light ($190) is capable and the lowest-profile of the bunch if you can find one with the older flush mount. The new ratchet mount is as handy as it is cumbersome.

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