P-38 or P-51 Can Opener Review

can opener pic

Not everything made for the military is truly well made. In many cases what is made for the military, regardless of nation of origin, often is low-end and fits into a rather loose set of restrictions guiding its building.

This is the case with the amazing folding can opener known as the P-38 and P-51. 

The P-38 can opener was designed for soldiers in 1942, it filled the need for a can opener for the C Rations that existed in some form through the early 1980s when MREs replaced these. It should be noted that an identical tool was featured in a 1924 Popular Mechanics issue in tools for women. (see picture) The provenance as we can see is slightly murky.

Can opener

This is not a history lesson, I will leave that for others who are willing to dig further than I am at this time. It should be noted that it was not the Army that invented it, but rather an individual working under contract out of a private laboratory in Chicago, possibly far earlier than 1942. The P-38 or P-51 has never been known to break, need sharpening or rust. It simply works and it works very well!

Every single soldier that has had one has embraced them and ends up keeping them for many years. This truly is one of the best inventions ever made. It is a true multi-tool in that its design allows use for many applications and it does those well without fuss or being large and complicated like so many approaches to the same issues today.

They are extremely easy to use and inexpensive to purchase. Here are the instructions for use of the can opener regardless type as printed by the military.

can opener instructionsCan Opener Directions

  1. Open blade
  2. Place can opener as shown in diagram (see attached diagram)
  3. Twist down to puncture slot in the top of the can
  4. Cut top by advancing opener with a rocking motion. Take small bites as you move forward.

Sterilize it after every use!

There is really nothing I can say that will detract from the overall benefit seen in this simple tool. I would suggest purchasing U.S. Shelby Co. labeled product versus others available. Because of the very low cost to produce these great tools, there is no real market for knock-offs, the profit margin is extremely low. You can buy a package of ten of them for under $10 using this link here. And yes, I have specifically tested and used these. Again, they make amazing stocking stuffer type gifts.

If you are thinking, why do I need 10 of these, well the answer is literally this good. One for the keychain, two for the tool drawer in the kitchen, one for your car and one for each bug out type bag, another for traveling and always have spares because…the airport security may indeed take yours. Personally, I have purchased several dozen over the years. Between losing them and giving them away it is definitely something to buy a few of!

There it is, my review of the P-38/P-51 can opener and with a definite buy a couple more as a suggestion I can end this article with a two thumbs up. Hope you enjoyed this article, comment and let me know when you got your first can opener and if you use it regularly.

can opener pic

Free the mind and the body will follow

Jesse Mathewson

Arizona since 86', lifetime prepper, camper - criminal justice advanced degrees, numerous certifications, 1+ million rounds (shooting for decades), prior contractor, instructor, current volunteer, disabled, honest, father of two husband of one - all budget and prepared. Jesse Mathewson reviews because regular people need someone in their corner as well!

30 Responses

  1. Greg M. says:

    Jesse, thank you for another good review. I personally can attest that both tools are good, the P-51 in my opinion is better (easier to handle). I have had many dozen of these also, keep them around for multiple uses. In addition to being a can opener, it is a field expedient screwdriver, letter opener, box opener, and probably a dozen other uses.

  2. JP in MT says:

    When I first got to my tacticaal unit assignment, I didn’t know that there were about 6 P-38’s in each case of rations. But others did and made sure they took them all (they were issued as individual meals, not by the case to us). Once I found out, I went to the mess sergeant and asked for some. Soon, we had all we needed. Since we had maintenance shelters on our trucks, we kept the spares in them and your primary was on your dog tag chain (and inspected for).

    You can get rust on them, but not if you clean them after each use.

    The P-51’s are bigger, therefore now of more use due to getting older, but work on the same principle.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Zulu 3-6 says:

    I opened a lot of C-Rats with a P-38. Never had one break and I did, indeed, carry one on my dog tag chain even after MREs came out (you never know what you might be able to scrounge that needs a can opener). Opening #10 cans was a bit of a bother with a P-38, but quite doable.

    Doubles as a screwdriver.

    The P-51 came out a bit later and is bigger, making #10 can opening easier and quicker. I’ve got a small supply of P-51s, but only a couple of old P-38s. Still have my old dog tag chain (actually 550 cord) and it still has a P-38 on it.

  4. JOHN STILES says:

    I carry one in my wallet, tucked in the corner of the “dollar bill” slot.

  5. Rose says:

    I got a P-38 back in 1982 at basic training and I still carry it today. Works great.

  6. Owl Creek says:

    I first used one back in 1962 during basic training. I’ve owned a few more over the years but haven’t used one in quite a while. I still have one and I think I’ll probably buy a few more just to keep with the long term items in the supply closet. I never thought much about it but they could probably become a good barter item at some point.

  7. Paladin says:

    Thanks Jesse,

    I’m retired now and have been carrying the same P38 since high school. Still works like it did on my first can of C rats as a GI brat.


  8. preppernanna says:

    I have arthritis in both hands, very limited grip.how hard are they to use for someone in my condition ?

    • Jesse Mathewson says:

      Preppermomma. Honestly they take some torque to use. However, if you lever them using archimedes principles they get easier- the hardest twist is the initial one!

    • JP in MT says:


      I would recommend the P-51. If you look around, you should be able to find a single for sale at many sporting goods stores. Try one and know for sure.

  9. cgbascom says:

    My Marine husband used to call it his “John Wayne.” He introduced it to me when we were first married. I used it all the time. After our third move, we lost it and resorted to using other can openers. A couple of years ago, I bought a package of 10 of them. I began to use them, which irritated my granddaughter when she had to use it, but unfortunately, my arthritic fingers can’t manage them anymore. They have been put away in the cupboard waiting for someone else in the family to use them.

    • Zulu 3-6 says:

      To us Marines, almost everything was a “John Wayne” something. JW can openers, JW crackers, etc.

  10. Jack says:

    Jesse, excellent review of a great basic tool everyone should own. Here in the Philippines, it is difficult to find many items. We were pleased to see both US Shelby and knockoffs at the Tactical Asia website. We laid in a good supply of P38 and P51 tools. Each mini-person has one included with a few other often needed necessities in an emergency on a short length of pull chain. The chain is clipped inside near the top of the school EDC bags for immediate access. YES, they know how to use them! As you suggest, there will be one in our new project vehicle. The remaining units are on a peg in the supply room. Maria & family was impressed with this simple tool they had not seen before.

    • Jesse Mathewson says:

      Jack. I do enjoy hearing this! Amazing the things we miss at times, these really are important at least as long as one needs a screwdriver/can opener !

  11. Thor1 says:

    I always call in a ww2 fighter aircraft strike to open my cans. Nothing like opening a can with a 50 cal. machine gun…….LOL

    Got P38 in all the bugout bags…..

  12. 007 says:

    jesse, my can opener is on my swiss army knife (s), that i have had for 20+ years, they are still working, only that i dont use them that much, but they are there if i need them. the can openers on the swiss army knifes are great.

  13. Old Country Boy says:

    Good artical. Blast from the past. Been carrying a P38 since associated with c-rats. Still use it on occasion.
    While back a vet had his taken prior to a flight. TSA considered it a weapon. Guy was upset. Yep go figure. A pencil can be more dangerous.

  14. Duncan says:

    I used a P-38 in Army Basic back in “80 when we were given C rations dated 1942-44. After we finished eating our CO came by and cautioned us that maybe the apple sauce shouldn’t be eaten as on of our squad was licking his spoon. Good news, he didn’t get sick ! I purchased a bag of 100 of P-51s from Sportsmans Guide 10 years ago. Passed out some to my Son and Son-in-Law right away. Both had served in the military as well, they liked the big brother to the ones they had seen.

  15. Graybeard says:

    I still carry the P-38 that I got in Basic back in ’71 on my key chain. I also carry a P-51 on the key chain. Handy to have around. Jesse, which do you prefer?

    • Jesse Mathewson says:


      With kiddos the p51 has been best because its longer and easier to use for small fingers!

  16. Kenny says:

    I’ve helped a friend ship items from her eBay store and packed many P38 & 51s for just pennies each. ‘Suzys Surplus’ stocks a lot of items for all of us. Tell her Kenny sent ya.

  17. Sirius says:

    I got my first P-38 when I was a Boy Scout. My Scout Master was British and served Her Majesty’s Army in Korea. For some reason, he had a lot of C-Rats. We all had P-38’s. Flash forward 7 years and now I’m in Korea. Boots on the ground less than 72 hours and I’m in an “exercise”. Guess what we got for field rations? Guess who had the only P-38. I became a very popular guy, very quickly.

  18. Salem says:

    I’ve got a P-51 in one or two of my small emergency kits, not sure which ones. But since my Swiss Army “Hiker” is always in my pocket (except in Gov’t buildings), I use that instead. It took me a minute the first time I tried it to figure out the Swiss openers cut away from you instead of toward you.

    I never knew there was a P-38 little brother. Thanks for the review.