Light, versatile and cheap: The p38 and p51 can openers

A surprisingly versatile invention that is well over seventy years old at this point: The p38 and p51 can openers.



There are some pieces of gear you purchase, use, carry and never think about.

Even if you use the gear regularly, it is  more like breathing: It is just something that is automatic and I really don’t think about.

I really don’t form any sentimental attachment to my gear or get into purchasing of new gear as a hobby.

I simply pick up something as I need it. Shoes wear out? Get new ones.  The pack is thrashed? Research a pack that will work for me. My puffy is bit worn? See what is on-sale and get a new one.

I am not the type of person to try out and buy a plethora of new shelters or packs.   They are tools. Something to aid me in my overall goal to enjoy the backcountry in a safe and  efficient manner.  My Grandmother did not try out and evaluate several knives, pans or spoons over the years to make  a fritatta. She just used said knife to cut vegetables, sauté’ them in a pan and mix them as appropriate.  And when the knife, spoon or pan needed replacing? She bought a new one.

And that is how I feel about most of my gear. Something to use and replace as needed. I do not let gear mania get in the way of how I personally enjoy the wilderness.

But, as  I mentioned above, there are certain pieces of gear I just use and have stood the test of many years of outdoor use:  The balaclava I picked up for $7 at Sierra Trading Post back in 2001.  My surplus boonie hat.  The Nalgene Cantene.

If I were to lose these items (or in the case of the Nalgene Cantene, wear out), my gear system is off kilter.

The balaclava has been with me for thousands of miles of outdoor use.  When the wind took away my boonie in the Pecos, I immediately bought a new one.  And the Nalgene Cantene is replaced immediately when there is a puncture or the seams finally start leaking after much use.

And add to this list to humble p38 and p51 can openers.

Famously called “the best Army invention ever”, the p38 can opener is legendary  for its versatility.  (The p51 is the slightly bigger and more robust brother of the p38)

Tighten screws. Open packages. Clean fingernails. Pry open things. And, yeah, open cans.

The usefulness goes on and on.

On  a winter trip I helped guide last year, it proved to be an indispensable part of the weekend. 

Ice was scraped out of bindings, ski poles tightened, packages opened and small cans of delicious green chili opened to add to the welcome hot meal!

I use a p51 as I like the larger size (easier to handle), but both the p38 and the p51 are beyond useful.  Neither one even registers on a scale accurate to .125 of an ounce.

The p51 is kept on a small key ring along with a Swiss Army knife classic and a Photon II key chain light. This small key ring is brought on not only every outdoor trip I do, but also carried in my everyday life. At roughly one ounce , it is a versatile little keychain tool kit.   Whenever I need to make a quick cut, tighten a screw or shine a little light on something, it is there and waiting.  The few times I thought I misplaced my key ring, I frantically hunted for it!

p51 can be bought for roughly a buck, the p38 for perhaps .50 cents. Online you can often buy packs that sell both for a couple of dollars. Pick and choose the model that works for you..or carry both because they are so light! The real USA made-McCoy is so inexpensive, there is no reason to buy a knock-off brand that is of questionable quality.

Light, versatile and inexpensive. What’s not to like about this amazing little invention????


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Yoshihiro Murakami
9 years ago

Yes, it is lovely. But, regrettably, almost all the can is equipped with pull-up opener, never require a can opener in Japan.

9 years ago

Good post Mags, as usual. The P-38 is one of those things to have in the field at all times. It is mighty easy to forget a can opener and then be stuck with a can of tuna and no good way to open it.

The “Classic” knife, LED light and P-38 combo you have pictured packs a whole lot of usefulness for the weight and I often carry that exact combo.

8 years ago

Bonus: my Made In Canada P-51 works nicely as a striker for a ferro rod. Oddly enough, the P-38 I picked up (stamped US Shelby Co) doesn’t strike nearly as well. I guess it’s a low-carbon steel.

4 years ago

Great info Mags! Add an update how pack rats are attracted to your balaclava as much as you ? Tee hee!