P-38: An Ultralight Jack-of-all-trades

P38_canopenerA comment from Mattexian on a recent blog post of mine (Something I Never Hike Without) reminded me of one of my favorite little gadgets that I take for granted, the U.S. ARMY issue P-38 Can opener. I’ve carried one of these on every set of keys that I have had for as far back as I can remember and I’ve given away dozens of them to friends and family.

Whomever said the government can’t make good products was wrong.  For just about everything else it’s true they do suck, but not the P-38. This little can opener let millions of GIs crack open their C-rations, not to mention the dozens of other uses they found for it in the field.

The “P” stands for puncture and the “-38” is said to stand for how may times it took to go around the C-ration can.  The hole in the top of the P-38 was used to put it on a chain or string so that it could be dipped into boiling water to clean it after use.  Form and functionality at work.

This 1-inch stamped metal tool was developed in only 30 days in the summer of 1942 by the Subsistence Research Laboratory of Chicago.  One that I have had for over 20 years now has the words “US Mallin Shelby” stamped on it, designating it as an original Vietnam era version made by Mallin Howe Shelby of Ohio.

In his comment Mattexian referred to it as “my little talisman of preparedness, as it works as designed as a can opener, but also flathead screwdriver (as well as Phillips, if you use the corner), fingernail cleaner, paint scraper, awl, and many more uses“.   He also had a great little carry tip – “It fits right on a set of dog tags, though I wrapped some electrical tape around it to keep it from popping open and jabbing me”.

Thanks for reminding me just how amazing the P-38 is!

Gear Links: Eastern Mountain Sports | REI | CampSaver | Patagonia | Altrec

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  • To add to Mattexian’s comment, I too would wear mine on my dogtag chain. However, instead of tape I would put a rubber band on it which served to muffle it against the tags (noise discipline) and also provided me with an emergency rubber band if I needed one. It’s always amazing to me how often a rubber band can come in handy.

    However, be warned, use a good quality band if you will be in the field any real length of time…

  • Hi Brian, John here I’ve also used one of these for 29 years the same one used to be issued with army ration packs. would like to imagine how many tins its opened

  • Hi Brian, John here I’ve also used one of these for 29 years the same one used to be issued with army ration packs. would like to imagine how many tins its opened

  • Stu

    My uncle and I were watching a show on wars and it had a segment about the equipment the soldiers carried with them.  This device was among the equipment featured.  Upon seeing it, my uncle smiled a little and pulled out his keys.  He still has his from when he was in Vietnam.  He said he still uses it to this day and he makes sure he never leaves home without it!

  • Stu

    My uncle and I were watching a show on wars and it had a segment about the equipment the soldiers carried with them.  This device was among the equipment featured.  Upon seeing it, my uncle smiled a little and pulled out his keys.  He still has his from when he was in Vietnam.  He said he still uses it to this day and he makes sure he never leaves home without it!

  • sologal

    This goes on my essentials clip, though i wrap business end in small piece of duct tape to keep it flat. I will try the rubber band!  You never know when you might run into some canned goods that are appealing enough to carry up the mountain from town for dinner. Mostly use as makeshift flat screwdriver, pryer.

    • Having a small amount of spare duct tape is never a bad think, the rubber band can be used for many things too – a ranger band is even better!

  • sologal

    This goes on my essentials clip, though i wrap business end in small piece of duct tape to keep it flat. I will try the rubber band!  You never know when you might run into some canned goods that are appealing enough to carry up the mountain from town for dinner. Mostly use as makeshift flat screwdriver, pryer.

  • Having a small amount of spare duct tape is never a bad think, the rubber band can be used for many things too – a ranger band is even better!

  • challengeyourlimits

    Best can opener is an oyster knife, you know like for shucking oysters.. I open a can of tuna or beans in 3 seconds . I bought one , a stainless one, 20 years ago, and it is still tough as nails and works great.