MSA PHALANX: A Good Mask By Accident
The MSA Phalanx is the result of a company trying to create an inbred cost cutting product to re-focus their target market, only to somehow screw up and sell it to the market they were trying to avoid.
A lot of people know MSA for their CBRN gas masks, tactical ear protection, body armor, and ACH helmets (Yes they really did produce those). But here is the problem: This is all a side gig for MSA. They are, after all, named Mining Safety Applications for a reason. So how did they manage to accidentally turn themselves into one of the biggest military hardware dealers, and why would they want to escape the niche in the first place?
The start of this complex story began sometime in the 1970’s. The current standard issue gas mask of the US Military was the M17, and everyone hated it. It was hard to shoulder, had limited visibility, and filter replacement was a nightmare. The mask very obviously needed a replacement, but few people knew what to do about it. The first big attempt to make a sane service mask started with the XM29. While not much is known about it, from what blurry pictures we have of it, the mask was likely based upon the M25 tank mask and the US Navy Diaphragm Mark V.
At some point, for unknown reasons, the project was ditched. Not knowing what to do, the government chucked the project at ILC Dover in an omnibus grant solicitation, who ended up finishing out the mask into the XM30, which was later revised into the MCU 2/P. Scott safety would end up being charged with the production of this mask. However, there were some issues with Scott’s production quality. Its unknown what exactly happened, but a few years into production, Scott’s contract was dropped.
Even today, there aren’t many people with the expertise and capability to produce a gas mask. “What the hell, why not bid on it” were likely the words of the MSA executive that pulled the trigger on the contract. They had the supply chains, the expertise, and the money to make injection molds, so what could go wrong? The core problem, as anyone who has worked in sourcing knows, big customers can force producers into price reductions. And if your exclusive customer is the US government, well then you are in a whole different league of fucked.
This is what led to a period of desperation for MSA. They were not making the cashflow they needed. They were in a bad spot and had to find a way out. They had gotten away from the markets they truly understood. They needed a low cost high margin product to sell to their core audience: mining operations. Thus the MSA Phalanx was born.
The body of the Phalanx is a single, monolithic piece of black hydrocar rubber. A large piece of acrylic is set in place by two screwed together injection molded retainers makes up the visor. Later models generally have oral nasal cups, but the gas mask itself was never designed to use them. Instead it relies on vents in either eye duct to defog the visor.
Just to give you an idea exactly how much cost cutting was going on with the Phalanx, there are many recycled parts on this mask. The respirator’s voice diaphragm is very clearly pilfered from an MCU 2/P, and likely stamped by the exact same machine. While I cannot confirm it, I suspect the exhale valve cover is also from a different mask. If it was original to the Phalanx, then it was most definitely re-used in one of MSA’s later cost cutting adventures.
Probably the most interesting part of the mask itself is filtration method of choice. A 7/8 14’’ threaded connector would be used to attach filters. The male connection would stay on the gas mask itself, while the female end would be present on the filter. When the male and female end were screwed in place, the rubber of the mask itself acts as the gasket.
While this is an interesting cost cutting method, it was an even more powerful source of profit for the company. Due to the uncommon connection method, only MSA and those who it contracted out (generally NORTH) produced filters, allowing it to gain back otherwise lost profits.
You might think the story of MSA’s inability to properly gauge what markets they should cater to would stop at the MCU 2/P. You would be wrong, and the greatest example of this is the Phalanx itself.
While the Phalanx was originally meant for the mining market, very few people wanted it. It found some users (who still surprisingly field the mask to this day), but it was not the commercial success MSA needed.
This is when DEF TEC stepped in. For those of you not familiar, Defense Technologies is the leading producer of riot control gear. Ever seen a can of CS shot into a crowd, or a Flash Bang thrown into a house? That crowd compliance technology™ was likely produced by none other than DEF TEC. They aren’t just one of the producers either. DEF TEC sports deepstate-adrenocrone-illuminati levels of connections to police stations, giving them a near strangle hold over the industry.
There isn’t exactly much information on what happened to cause DEF TEC to get involved with MSA. Did MSA approach DEF TEC? Did DEF TEC see the product and make an offer to MSA? Whatever happened, one thing is clear. MSA began producing Phalanx’s with the DEF TEC logo stamped into the rubber at OEM time. DEF TEC would then turn around, and sell these gas masks to police stations. Slowly but surely, the Phalanx would make a stealthy entry into American police stations. While it never became the symbol of anonymous riot suppression that the Millennium would grow up to be, it still found itself embedded into the American unconscious, appearing on screen in movies such as Terminator 2.
Yet again MSA found itself in the same position. Stumbling, by total accident, into the defense market and wondering how the hell it got there. MSA would continue this tradition with its MCU 2/P contract, turning it into the Millennium we know and love today. The Phalanx still exists on the market, albiet recycled, in the form of the Ultravue (which is literally a Phalanx with the voice diaphragm converted into the filter port) and the Ultratwin (which is a Phalanx with a different screw thread and an adapter). MSA would go on to expand its military contracts to an extent unknown to many. These days they produce everything from SAPI plates to pouches, while flying entirely under the radar.