P 38 or P 51 Can Opener – Handy, Compact for Emergency Kit

The P 38 (or the P 51), the military can opener. “The best Army invention ever.”

It’s a great add-on to one’s emergency survival kit! Especially for a smaller, lighter, compact kit. You can also attach them to a keychain using the small punched hole.

First, here’s a picture of them.

The P 38 or the P51 by US Shelby (Make sure they are stamped US Shelby to guarantee made in the USA).

P-38 and P-51 can opener made by U.S. Shelby

SHELBY – Made in the USA
(view on amzn)

P38 vs P51 Can Opener

What’s the difference? The P 38 and the P 51 are both the same except for their size. They’re both small, but cleverly designed to easily open a can.

The P 38 can opener measures 38mm long.

The P 51 measures 51mm long.

The handle portion will also double as a flat-blade screwdriver.

Originally designed for the United States Armed Forces, the pocket-sized can opener consists of a short metal blade that serves as a handle.

Here’s how it works:

It has a small, hinged metal tooth that folds out to pierce the can lid.

A notch just under the hinge keeps the opener hooked around the rim of the can. The device is “walked” around to cut the lid out.

How To Open A Can With The P38 or P51

I’ve added several pictures to help get the idea across how to open a can with a P 38 or P51 can opener:

how-to-use-p-51-can-opener
p-51-can-opener-instructions
p-38-can-opener
p-51-military-can-opener

 
This can opener won’t last forever when used a-lot. Which is why I keep several!

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44 Comments

  1. If you are stuck with can and no opener: turn can upside down, and rub it flat to a large rock/cement. rub vigorously, and press down firmly. it will start to seem liquid. turn over and peel back the “rolled” edge.

    1. Got some buried somewhere. Been using the manual crank can opener for years. Just got addicted to using the manual crank opener. Opens fast and leaves a nice inner edge. My parents had an electric one years ago. They have long since recycled that big bulky thing. The hand crank fits nicely in a drawer while the electric used to take up too much counter space.

  2. Good review..
    I’ve had my current one on my key ring, gee since maybe 1980 defiantly since before the end of C-rats. I’ve had others before since 1975 dang batteries etc. There’s replacements still being made by the same companies..

  3. Great article carry one on my keychain , also have some stashed back for SHTF .Be prepared and ready. Keep your powder dry.

  4. I have about a dozen in both sizes from the surplus store. They work very well. But I’ve found that as the arthritis in my hands progresses, I’m no longer able to use such a tiny device. Keep that in mind if you are planning on relying on these for emergency. I keep several KitchenAide openers with large handles stashed in my pantry.

    1. Check out “Ratcheting Canopener”. It might be just what you need. Lehman’s sells one that has a turn handle like on a wall mounted can opener. I had one but it got dull way too fast.
      My ratcheting one has been working for years.

  5. I’ve had the same P-38 since Boy Scouts. They not only open cans but can cut rope, puncture holes in leather and can strike a flint and be used for a flat head screwdriver, popping holes in plastic… A lot more options for use than a regular can opener! I keep mine sharp so when I go into or out of a store I have it open in my hand. That little blade will do some damage to a thug trying to jack me. many uses for a P-38!

  6. Had one on my key chain for 15 years, forgot about it, went to airport, TSA took it away from me at metal detector. Unbelievable.

  7. Small can openers are a great tool to have in any survival situation. There are many uses of it other than opening your cans.

    These small and inexpensive tools are very useful on a camping, fishing, hiking trip. You can easily pack it in your bug out bag. You can use it as a screw driver as well if needed. It can even be used as a cutting edge, groove cleaner, clean finger nails, open battery compartments, cutting tape on boxes, cutting string, scratching the corrosion off something.

    A p51 or p38 opener work well on any size of can rim. It will be really useful when you are out of power. If you get caught in a hurricane or a thunderstorm without power this tool may become very handy.

    With it’s added length p51 is easier to use. It takes less time to open a can with a p51 than a p38. With it’s smaller size P38 is a must have in your emergency survival kit, key ring, tackle box, bug out bag or even in your dog tag chain.

    These things were developed for army, it is a guarantee that they are truly good survival tools.

  8. You may or may not ever need that tricked out AR to fend off a horde of hungry Zombies. You will almost certainly, at some point, have to open a food can when the electric counter top one ain’t working. The P-38 is about as handy to have as a third hand when your nose is itching when carrying two cups of hot coffee. And they are cheap.

    The overwhelming majority of my food preps are commercial canned goods. We keep several different hand operated can openers, all much larger than the P-38, none work better. In all fairness though, the can/bottle opener on my various Leatherman tools work well, too.

    A tip for those who carry a P-38 on a key ring or in your pocket like change, wrap a piece of tape around the cutting edge to hold it flat against the body of the tool. Holds it harmless, preventing unwanted accidental stabbing of your thigh.

    1. Well you could use tape but gets reside on it. I use a very small magnetic instead.
      Works great and just put it on side of can when ready to use. Just need to remember to put the magnet back on.
      I find the P51 tooth comes out more easily than the P38. But I do agree the Multi-tools opener works great if you have one on you at the time. I use my Spirit X if not either the P51 or P38.
      Just my input

  9. – I still have my first P-38, Issued to me in 1973 on my key ring. There’s a reason it’s there, too. When the Army went to the T-rations, the openers they decided to issue with them were useless pieces of junk. Often they would break before opening the first can. The P-38 would open as many as you wanted. Over the years, I have given away hundreds of the little can-openers. Really kind of wish I had put a few more back, LOLOL.
    – Papa S.

    1. – Actually, when opening a 3# coffee can, I could beat an electric opener 2 out of three times. Yes, anon, they do work and quite well.
      – Papa

  10. A little hint, for those that have one and never used it, do so, it is a little tricky and ya don’t want to be learning when the Kids are crying for food….

  11. I picked up half a dozen of these several years ago after the can opener I was using broke. The wheel that rides under the rim of the can just snapped off. I was shocked, I had never seen metal break before. It just sheared off. So now we have roughly 9 or 10 various can openers, with 6 being the P-38.

  12. I forgot to mention that I have used these to open cans that no other opener will open.

  13. Am I the only one who has used a church key (aka- beer can opener) to open canned goods? Works every time, although a little labor intensive. Never was much of a drinker, but time was, you needed one to open any drink can, from beer to tomato juice. I’ve still got several laying around.

    1. Dennis, you are not the only one who used a church key to open cans. I used to do it all the time then went into the military and from that point use a P38 most of the time which I carry. A few times however I still used a church key on cans. Also have a church key next to the food saver and use the bottle opener on the flip side to take the lids off mason jars. It is an easy lid lifter and we usually reseal our jars of chili, cat’s tuna etc between daily meals. It keeps the opened canning jar food in the refrigerator fresher longer.

  14. – Dennis,
    I have even used the things to open cans of vegetables to cook for supper. We still have several around, although I can’t think of when the last time I used one for anything except paint.
    – Papa S.

  15. good reminder. Have to get one. For folks who have a lot of canned stores, be good to keep one in each case of cans. “just in case”.—–Wondering if they work well for anything else? Would that sharp point work to break a car window? ….

    1. – Jane Foxe,
      Car window, I wouldn’t want to try it. I have used it to tighten eyeglass screws, though. See the list in the article, and consider that is maybe about half of the uses. I’ve even used one to clean trout and rabbits.
      – Papa S.

  16. Veggies
    Open forum is moved to the sidebar if you are using a desktop or laptop
    If IOS or android not sure, i just go there through recent comments from the top menu, so its still going, is just an ongoing setup.

  17. Once again, thank you, Ken. I have just ordered four of the P-51 and two of the spoon ones. One is for my emergency bag, a couple to keep at home and the remaining for gifts.

    I will be giving a talk on emergency bags at a senior’s wellness group and these are a great addition because it will be completely new to them. Bic lighters? Not so much.

    Stay frosty.

  18. TSA took one that I had carried for years. Said it had a sharp point. That’s OK. Was pretty much worn out. I must have collected several dozen over my years in the Army. I think 5 or 6 came in each case of C-Rats. I must still have a dozen in the paper wrapper.

  19. I have had a P-38 on my key ring for 35-years or more, I would feel lost without it.

    I have numerous backups.

  20. Just about anything will open a can. A soup spoon, K-Bar, just about any knife..including a butter knife…, the back blade edge of a chiefs knife, a file, a smooth rock…lots of things.

    Anyone else use their vehicle engine to heat up their canned food? Just stack them on the exhaust manifold for a bit.

    1. I guess if you are going to run a generator…why not use it to heat up your canned food, too?

    2. I used the duece and half manifold to heat up cans while I was in the army all the time for left over c rats and poogie bait. The manifold was flat pipe on top which really helped.

    3. Ision,

      I’m guessing that every G.I. who had access to a motor vehicle has heated C-rats on the engine. It has a learning curve, though. If you don’t vent the can, they can and will explode, if you do vent the can, they will bleed some of the contents out. The trick is to place them not on the exhaust manifold where temps are way above boiling, but rather, place them unopened on surfaces next to engine that never exceed the boiling point. Takes longer to heat, but not nearly as messy. I’m an experienced field expedient chef.

      1. I worked with one guy who liked to heat his lunch on the manifold of one of the engines at job sites. Well, one day he was doing his usual except he forgot to crack open the can. The can exploded and spread chili all over. Needless to say, no one was allowed to heat their lunches on engines any more.

  21. Soon they’ll require us to travel naked with hands and feet bound to avoid the danger of fingernails. Oh, and let’s not forget the muzzles, since teeth are dangerous too. Idiots.

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