MSA’s “Tactical” Gas Masks

In just two short months, the gluttonous spectacle of crassness and debauchery that is the Republican National Convention will be taking place here in Saint Paul. Along with the sleazy politicians and lobbyists, their aides, wives, mistresses, hookers, drug dealers, and other hangers-on, there will also be a large number of angry young men and women protesting and demonstrating against, really, just about everything. Since at least a few of these young whippersnappers are intent on mayhem, things at the convention – or, at least, in the streets downtown, near the convention – could get kind of interesting, in a pucker-factor-seven, rioters-clashing-with-police kind of way.

I don’t mind pepper-spray too much; it’s basically just food-grade hot sauce in a spray can, and tastes good on chicken. (No, really.) Tear gas, on the other hand, doesn’t taste nearly so good, and is something I can really live without. (More unpleasant than ‘rhoids, but easier to get rid of.) Unfortunately, it’s also a pretty indiscriminate, area-effect weapon, and while I intend to adhere strictly to both parts of Niven’s First Law, those CN and CS particles can’t tell I’m one of the good guys. (Mmmm, nanotech riot-control agents…) So, what’s a homeboy to do? Buy a gasmask, that’s what…

Since now is the time to be buying gas masks – before convention-and-riot season is fully upon us – I thought this would be a good opportunity to examine two of the best gas masks on the market today. The usual disclaimers apply: I’m not affiliated with the manufacturer, nor any retailers; I’m not being compensated in any way for writing this – nor for the masks themselves, dang it – and my views are just my own and nobody else’s. (It’s not that I’m unwilling to compromise my principles, such as they are, just that nobody’s tried to, recently. Hey, 3M! This proud and happy resident of Saint Paul – where your headquarters is, hello! – would love to get an example of your M-40 mask, size large, to review…)

Back in the 1980s, Mine Safety Appliances, or MSA, introduced the MCU-2/P gas mask for the U.S. Air Force. In a lot of ways, it was the first truly new development in gas mask design since the early 1960s; its single large, flexible lens was pretty revolutionary. (The M-17 family of masks that came before were quite nice, and though they had a few shortcomings – one or two of them quite big – they were still the standard civilian law-enforcement gas mask right up through September 10th, 2001.) While the MCU-2/P and variants have now largely been replaced by newer, (supposedly) better masks in military service, the civilian version – called the Millennium – is still in production, and should remain so for a while, as it’s one of just two masks to be fully CBRN-certified by NIOSH. (The certification is basically meaningless, except for marketing… but I digress.) It is, as near as I can tell, absolutely identical to the military version, except for color.

It’s a very lightweight mask, fits extremely well, and is amazingly comfortable to wear. Some masks – like those made by North – are ergonomic nightmares (whoever designed the nosecup on North’s 54401 mask should have their nose cut off, as punishment), but the Millennium isn’t one of them. It holds the chin well, conforms to the cheeks and nose extremely well, and doesn’t cut into the head like so many others do. The head-harness is well thought-out, and while some might not like the elastic construction, I prefer it to the rubber used on other masks.

The upsides? Fits extremely well, is very comfortable and lightweight. Compatible with most if not all the accessories and parts for the MCU-2/P (like the tinted lenses, the hood, and the voice-amplifier), which can be found as new surplus, cheap. (Danger, Will Robinson; using MCU parts on a Millennium mask will void that useless NIOSH certification…) Uses standard 40MM filters. Has – if you really need one – a drinking tube with connection for a canteen lid.

The only downsides, for me, are the products of its military lineage: the drinking – excuse me, “hydration” – tube isn’t important to me, and can neither be removed nor, for the internal bit, moved out of the way. Also, the second, side-mounted “voicemitter”, designed to be used with telephones (or radio-telephones) is useless to me, and makes switching the (40mm, NATO/DIN standard) cannister or cartridge mount from one side of the mask to the other more difficult than it really needs to be. The mask is also, because of its CBRN certification and military-provenance cachet, freaking expensive, even on the secondary market. (I admit, I got a heck of a deal on mine.)

All in all, it’s a pretty good mask, but I have a feeling that at least 75% of the people who pay full retail, or close to it, are paying a premium for things they don’t need. Still, if you can snag a new one in your size for a good price, go for it.

If you don’t need the NIOSH approval that the Millennium mask has (hot tip: you don’t), and don’t need to stroke your ego by buying something “designed for the military”, the Millennium’s “little brother”, the Advantage 1000, might be what you’re looking for. As you can see, there’s a certain family resemblance between the two…

The similarities aren’t just cosmetic, either. Both are constructed basically identically, though the Advantage 1000 doesn’t have the second voicemitter, or the hydration system of the Millennium mask. The upside is that it’s even smaller and lighter than it’s big brother.

The fit of the Advantage mask is every bit as good as the Millennium, and it’s equally comfortable. In fact, I’d say the Advantage 1000 is slightly more comfortable than the Millennium, thanks to a different – better – style of harness and attachment. (Remember, the Millennium is really just the old, MCU-2/P design, whereas it’s clear that MSA learned from, and made improvements to that design to produce the Advantage.) None of the parts are compatible, and there are subtle differences between the designs, but the two are still very, very similar.

The big downside, for a lot of people, is that even though it’s a much newer design, and is in some ways better, the Advantage 1000 is pretty clearly marketed as MSA’s no-frills, reduced-cost, entry-level competitor to the Millennium, and it shows. For one thing, where the Millennium takes standard 40mm screw-in filters, available new or surplus from any number of companies or vendors – the Advantage 1000 takes its own, proprietary, bayonet-mount filter, as standard. (Mmm, sole-source contract. It’s a very good filter, I admit, which protects against a wide variety of NBC threats. It’s just your only option, and I’m less than enthused about being potentially reliant on an item with exactly one source worldwide.) This isn’t a dealbreaker, to me, because you can get (for $40 or so) an adapter which allows you to mount 40mm filters on the Advantage mask; one of these is mounted on mine, and shown in the photo above. Additionally, the Millennium comes standard with a clear polycarbonate lens, which clips on over, and protects, the mask’s integral, flexible rubber one. A similar – but not interchangeable – lens is available for the Advantage 1000, but costs ($50) extra. As far as I’m aware, there’s no protective hood available for the Advantage 1000, nor will the Millennium hood fit it, so it’s overall usefulness is limited with regard to a large number of nasty chemicals and biological agents which – let’s face it – are at best incredibly unlikely to ever be used by a military or terrorist group within our lifetime.

I do have one quibble with the whole protective-lens system, shared by both masks: It’s dangably hard to keep clean, as the soft lens and the hard “outsert” don’t fit together perfectly snugly, and you can get little bits of stuff in between the two lenses. It’s petty, I know, but when you’ve got a big speck of dirt right in front of your eye, having to wipe four, argh, four! lens surfaces gets old, fast. To be fair, I think the two-layer lens thing is generally a great design, and I believe it offers some valuable protection that most other masks don’t.

Personally, between the two, I prefer the Advantage 1000 – but I don’t need (and don’t have an employer who thinks I need) the “better” protection the more expensive Millennium is rated to offer. To protect against riot-control agents, either mask is more than adequate – and both will offer equal protection against all the more realistic chemical and biological hazards. I got a really good deal on my Advantage mask, and the protective lens, but even if you have to pay retail, or close to it, a new Advantage 1000 is less expensive than an used, surplus MCU-2/P or other recent military mask, and every bit as all-around good.

Published in: Geekiness, General | on June 30th, 2008| 1 Comment »

Both comments and pings are currently closed.

One Comment

  1. On 7/7/2012 at 3:55 pm Jake Said:

    Hey I bought this exact same mask never been used and it came with a filter and it already had the filter attached to it so I put it on and breathed though it a couple times and then a couple hours later I noticed that the expiration date on it was from 1989 so my question is is that did it hurt me from those couple times that I did breathe through it.