Military Gas Masks vs. Industrial Respirators for Civilian Protection

Military Gas Masks vs. Industrial Respirators for Civilian Protection

by Matt Collins

Military gas masks are instantly recognizable.

The "alien" look… the inset goggles… the bulky filter. They can be disturbing, even when seeing them in a movie or a TV show.

But in the aftermath of record wildfires and the disastrous train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio—which released large amounts of hazardous chemicals that had to be burned onsite—Americans wonder if they need extra respiratory protection.

And while chemical weapons are strictly prohibited on the battlefield, they can still be used by terrorists to target civilians (like the Tokyo subway attacks, where sarin gas was used to injure 5,500 people).

So which kind of gas mask is suitable for the average American? Would an Industrial Respirator be a viable alternative in case of an emergency?

What should you be looking for? We're answering all those questions.

We'll look deeper into where these respirators come from, how they work, and what you can expect from them when the going gets rough. We'll show you exactly which gas masks are suitable for you and the key steps you can take to protect your family better today.

So let's get started.

Table of Contents

  • 01

    Military Gas Masks

  • 02

    Standard Gas Mask Gear

  • 03

    Industrial Respirators

  • 04

    Civilian Solutions

  • 05

    Top 2 Military Gas Masks (and Accessories)

  • 06

    Frequently Asked Questions About Military Gas Masks

Military Gas Masks

Military applications have always been among the most popular use cases for full-face gas masks.

Aside from a few of the earliest smoke hoods, gas masks as we know them today exist because of the brutal trench warfare of World War I—where poison gas attacks were a constant threat to frontline soldiers.

The first official gas attack of the war came on April 22, 1915, when German soldiers unleashed a massive cloud of chlorine gas to break a stalemate at the Northern end of the Ypres salient. Their attack was successful, as allied defenders abandoned their posts or stood their ground and choked on the deadly gas.

At first, soldiers were instructed to breathe through a layer of wet cloth when they saw the gas coming. But the devastating psychological impact of this new weapon quickly became apparent. And if soldiers were to hold their ground through poison gas attacks, they needed equipment to help them do it.

Enter the British P Helmet—a primitive solution by today's standards, but a solution nonetheless. British Army engineers discovered that dipping a permeable fabric hood in sodium phenolate and glycerin could negate the effects of chlorine and phosgene gases. The hood was fixed with two eyepieces and didn't require additional filtration. Soldiers saw the gas coming, pulled on the hood, and stayed in the fight when it rolled over them.

The British Army made 9 million P helmets… and 14 million more of the next version (the PH helmet).

(Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Around the same time, the Zelinsky–Kummant protivogaz was released. Nowhere near as popular as the P helmet, Zelinsky's invention was the first proper modern gas mask—in that it combined a sealed, full-face mask with a detachable filter. That detachable filter is critical because the mask itself never changes. Thick butyl rubber will always be the best answer to any CBRN threat. But different hazards require different types of filtration through various filter media. And for that, it's best to have different filters to help you tackle every kind of threat.

The use of poison gas was quickly outlawed in the aftermath of the First World War. But the mere existence of chemical weapons—and the massive stockpiles possessed by countries worldwide—meant that gas masks and related personal protective equipment (PPE) have remained an integral part of military kit.

During the US Invasion of Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, American soldiers were notoriously made to wear heavy-duty MOPP gear in 100+ degree weather due to the threat of Hussein's suspected chemical weapons.

Standard Gas Mask Gear

Through the years, these military gas masks evolved and adapted to the point where many resemble MIRA Safety’s CM-7M Tactical Gas Mask.

The visor configuration is the first thing most people notice about the CM-7M. Instead of a single oversized panoramic visor, it features two separate eyepieces. This configuration slightly reduces peripheral vision while allowing the wearer to use standard rifle optics and night vision gear (which can be less practical with a panoramic visor).

The CM-7M also features a contoured lower mask ideal for getting a good cheek weld on your rifle. It uses 40mm NATO standard filters and is compatible with mission-critical accessories like our gas mask microphone and Voice Projection Unit. The MB-90 Powered Air-Purifying Respirator can reduce breathing difficulty and prolong endurance if masked up for extended periods.

The CM-7M and CM-6M gas masks are currently deployed with law enforcement, military groups, and government agencies worldwide—including the United States Department of Defense, Ukraine's Ministry of Defense, South Africa's Ministry of Interior, and the Czech Republic's Ministry of Defense.

Some groups like SWAT Teams, riot agents, and special forces have shifted from using standard-issue full-face masks to Tactical half-face respirators like the Tactical Air-Purifying Respirator (TAPR) for specific situations. The TAPR uses compact 40mm filters and is compatible with popular helmet and communications formats, allowing users to integrate their PPE into their existing setup.

Indeed, half-face respirators don't provide the same level of protection as a full-face mask. But they can still be effective when dealing with known threats—like the lachrymatory agents (tear gas) used for riot control. They're also highly low-profile, which is a huge advantage when going for high speed and low drag.

Industrial Respirators

In contrast to military gas masks, industrial respirators are typically engineered to deal with lower-grade everyday threats found in the workplace.

Many of them are half-face respirators as opposed to full-face gas masks. They're often highly specialized to offer a specific kind of protection—with many popular choices focused on particulate filtering. They can protect the user from inhaling paint while spraying a car, prevent a laborer from inhaling asbestos during removal, or even neutralize harsh chemical threats found in factory environments.

Though respirators are seen as the "last line of defense" in the Hierarchy of Controls that dictates workplace safety, It's estimated that 5% of all US workers wear respirators for at least some of their job functions at 1.3 million establishments throughout the country.

In some cases, respiratory protection might be as simple as an N95 mask. In others, you might need particulate protection or even something more comprehensive. Respiratory protection will often be mandatory and sometimes provided by employers.

Within the United States, industrial respirators are regulated by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). NIOSH certification is often required if a respirator is to be worn on the job site. It can be expensive and time-consuming, though, and the result is little more than a stamp of approval (along with a substantially higher price tag for the end user). Europe's CE certification is roughly equivalent, but CE-certified respirators are often available with less price markup.

Within the category of industrial respirators, you'll also find the highest level of protection with a fully self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) like those offered by 3M. Instead of filtering environmental oxygen, these respirators use bottled oxygen, as you see in diving, often paired with a protective oversuit.

(Image courtesy of National Environmental Trainers)

These setups can be necessary around hazardous concentrations of CBRN threats and when environmental oxygen drops below the threshold for filters (usually around 19%). That's why firefighters often use SCBA respirators—there's not enough oxygen for them to breathe in the middle of a house fire.

In exchange for providing the best possible protection, SCBAs can be unwieldy and heavy. They also depend on bottled oxygen—which may last just a few hours. Each disadvantage makes them an impractical choice for military use but ideal for cleanup situations or any other use case when you immediately have decontamination facilities.

Civilian Solutions

Most gas masks and respirators are built to serve a specific purpose.

That means a full-face gas mask designed for military use will be optimized for combat. And a cloth surgical mask won't protect you from much outside the confines of a hospital.

As a result, vast portions of the population need more practical PPE solutions. Small children can't wear adult-sized gas masks, for example. And anyone with serious pulmonary issues won't have the lung power to operate a typical gas mask filter.

In other words, there just wasn't any practical PPE solution geared toward civilian families. Despite the frequent occurrence of industrial accidents involving toxic spills, and the ever-present threat of another terrorist attack, the need just wasn't being met.

And a few years ago, MIRA Safety set out to change that.

We currently offer two children's gas masks, including the more traditional MD-1 for younger kids and the PAPR-powered CM-3M respirator hood, ideal for toddlers and kids as young as two.

The MD-1 resembles a standard gas mask, with a front-facing filter port and a panoramic visor. One key difference from our adult-sized masks is the natural rubber construction, which should minimize the risk of adverse reactions from children's skin. The CM-3M, by contrast, is a clear powered hood that fits over a child's head and shoulders to provide accessible, worry-free respiration even when they're too young to wear a standard gas mask.

Both are practical, reusable solutions in the event of CBRN exposure. And both use the same 40mm NATO standard gas mask filters as the rest of your MIRA Safety respirators.

Top 2 Military Gas Masks (and Accessories)

Our first recommendation—a gas mask everyone should have—is the next-generation MIRA Safety CM-8M.

It's an entirely new design with a contoured visor that offers an ultra-wide field of view (like the panoramic visor on our CM-6M) while retaining compatibility with rifle optics and night vision (like the CM-7M). It's got the same streamlined lower mask design as the CM-7M, giving you the greatest possible flexibility with minimal compromise.

The CM-8M features an integrated hydration system with a dedicated canteen. And like our other MIRA Safety gas masks, it's compatible with the full range of gas mask accessories (including microphone, PAPR, and more) and all 40mm NATO standard gas mask filters.

The only exception would be for smaller adults who may not be able to achieve a perfect seal with the CM-8M. In those cases, we recommend a small size CM-7M gas mask.

Another top choice is the Tactical Air-Purifying Respirator (TAPR) since it's essentially a middle ground between a typical industrial respirator and a full-face military gas mask. It's small and flexible enough that it's ideal for incidental use on the job site or in uncertain environments—but it still offers the same uncompromising respiratory protection you'd get from a gas mask.

The TAPR comes with two filters, a harness, a carry pouch, and a hardshell case, giving users everything they need to get started. It's lightweight, ultra-compact, and perfect for carrying in your backpack or purse.

Of course, a gas mask is only as good as the filter you use with it. So we always recommend the NBC-77 SOF gas mask filter for full-size gas masks. It can protect the user from a wide range of CBRN threats in high concentrations, including a "Reactor" filter element specifically designed to filter out radioactive iodine that results from a nuclear blast or reactor meltdown. The NBC-77 SOF is rated to deal with these threats in high concentrations and comes with an unrivaled 20-year shelf life.

For smaller gas masks, children's gas masks, and TAPR half-face respirators, we have the compact alternative NBC-17 gas mask filter. These compact filters provide comparable protection at a much lower weight, making them another great all-around choice.

“Better to Have it and Not Need It…”

There's not exactly a simple solution.

Industrial respirators are highly specialized and purpose-built. They're not always going to be flexible enough to suit your purpose, and they're not always engineered to handle the most challenging situations.

Military gas masks, on the other hand, can be more expensive. They require dedicated filter cartridges for different threats, which can sometimes increase breathing difficulty.

But as time passes, Americans deal with an ever-widening spectrum of threats. From pandemic risks and potential terrorist attacks to toxic industrial spills and wildfires—it's getting to the point where civilians can't afford to ignore PPE any longer.

With that being the case, it's ultimately advisable to over-prepare. Invest in the gear you'd rather have and not need... instead of needing it and not having it. And since military gas masks are engineered for the battlefield, they can be tough enough to meet your needs for years.

That's why we recommend having at least one gas mask for each family member. For anyone under 12 years of age or over 60, you should also consider getting a PAPR to help supplement their lung power. Ideally, you'll also want at least three filters per gas mask—including P3 filters, multigas filters, and smoke filters (like the VK-530). But starting with a single NBC-77 SOF filter for each mask is better than nothing, especially since its 20-year shelf life means the filter will last just as long as the mask.

If you want to know more about gas masks and which might suit you, check out our guide HERE.

For more on gas mask filters and how different filters work, go HERE.

Stay safe!

Frequently Asked Questions About Military Gas Masks:

What does a CBRN Gas Mask Do?
How Effective are Military Gas Masks?
What Gas Mask does US Military Use?
What does the M50 Mask Protect From?
What Gas Mask does the Russian Military Use?