An excellent, and simultaneously terrible, tool

P-38 can opener

The P-38 can opener is something of a design classic. Tiny, inexpensive and extremely reliable, it's been cracking cans open since the Second World War.

But I'd never even seen one, and was interested to find out how well this iconic military tool actually worked.

So I bought four of 'em, for $US2.25 plus $US4.50 postage to me here in Australia, from this eBay seller. Their only sin was that they packed a worthless cell-phone booster sticker in with the can openers. But that was free.

(Here that seller is on instead of

[UPDATE: That seller's gone now, but there are tons of other eBay dealers with P-38s and their larger cousins, P-51s, for sale.]

Herewith, my in-depth review of the P-38:

It does, indeed, open cans.

It does so quantifiably better than would a sewing needle, a rubber chicken, or a silver dollar.

Opening a can with a P-38 is, I'm fairly sure, on the whole generally preferable to starving to death.

The P-38 is, however, a quite serious pain to use. Clip onto can rim, twist hard to make initial puncture, slide a little, twist again. Repeat many times. It requires considerable strength, and you can just feel the repetitive strain injury growing in your hand.

But the P-38 is only an inch and a half long, folds flat, weighs close to nothing, and can be manufactured in great quantities very cheaply. Given these limitations, I can't imagine how you could make a more elegant or effective opener for all sorts of cans.

So, fair enough. Case closed, right?


I'm told, you see, that P-38-type can openers are actually the normal kind of opener, for everyday domestic purposes and not just camping and the military, in some countries. Finland, for instance, and apparently also Brazil.

The versions they use are generally non-folding solid-metal types...

Finnish can opener

...which are more durable than the lightweight P-38, and are often also a bit bigger, for better leverage and less pain. (There's a larger version of the P-38 as well, called the P-51.)

But, based on my experience with the P-38, I'm here to tell you that making this same device somewhat larger and from one piece of heavier metal will not solve its serious problems.

This sort of opener is a bloody awful thing to have to use.

Why in heaven's name would significant portions of the population of any even slightly affluent country prefer it, and - as is apparently also the case in Finland and Brazil - often believe that the much faster and far easier-to-use turn-the-knob "rotary" type of can opener is likely to be an unreliable piece of crap?

Well, unreliable-piece-of-crap rotary can openers definitely do exist. There's one in this house, which I've had to use when I couldn't find the MagiCan.

Even though that crappy opener tends to lose the thread and have to be restarted a couple of times to puncture the lid all the way around, though, I solemnly attest that it is still better than the P-38. I think it'd beat a bigger, one-piece P-51-type opener too, though that might be a close-run thing.

You do not, however, have to spend a lot of money to get a rotary opener which, like the MagiCan, will open many hundreds, if not many thousands, of cans quickly, easily and completely reliably.

Yes, electric can openers for domestic use are stupid if you're not afflicted with arthritis or severely short of the most popular number of fingers, and the very cheapest dollar-store clones of the good rotary openers are not reliable.

But the can-opener design problem has been a thoroughly solved one for many years now. For the first half-century of the history of the can, they were made from such thick metal that no hand-held opener short of a hammer and chisel would do to open one. It didn't take terribly long after the metal got thinner for a variety of purpose-built openers to be designed, though. The first rotary opener was invented in 1870.

If people in Finland and Brazil think that a P-38-ish opener may perhaps open even more cans, without breaking, than a high-quality rotary type, then I suppose they may be right. But the number of cans you'd have to open with your twisty spiky thing to see the difference would, I think, have long since led you to employ that pointy little blade to slit your own throat.

I invite enlightenment on this subject from any readers who live in places where twist-spike openers are the norm.

(If you want to buy a P-38, they start from approximately no dollars on eBay. The P-38's larger and less painful cousin, the P-51, is also easy to find on eBay, for approximately no dollars plus 20 per cent.)

34 Responses to “An excellent, and simultaneously terrible, tool”

  1. Nikola Says:

    Not sure _why_ -> I'd have to check around - but this type of tool opener was very prominently used in ex-Yugoslavia (which I understand is viewed as a 4th-world country these days, and not entirely unjustifiably so, but trust me - we were aware and perfectly inside the purchasing power of rotary can openers;). It can packaged on the bottom of most cans - from "luncheon mystery meat" to sardines or beans. There must be a knack for it, as I remember seeing people open the cans with it very quickly and effortlessly; and their actions seemed different than your algorithmic description; certainly though, they would open cans as fast as I can open them with my medium-range rotary opener.
    I was too young to have acquired those skills myself before leaving, but I'll see if I can't find some answers :)

  2. bonkabonka Says:

    Most of the cans I have need to open lately have come with ring-pulls on them. For the less enlightened ones, I find my Swiss Army knife more than sufficient to the task. Unlike the horrible battery-powered thing I got as a white-elephant gift. Or the 1950s vintage rotary opener my Grandmother gave me when she heard I was lacking in can-opener-ness.

  3. Boran_blok Says:

    I have a Tupperware can opener, and they probably stole the idea from somewhere, but it is a rotary can opener that does not cut the lid, but it cuts the seam sealing the lid to the can. The seal is in a softer metal, hence it takes no effort at all. And as an added bonus you dont have any sharp edges on which you can cut and a convenient lid you can replace on the can.

  4. okedem Says:

    Here in Israel, these openers are very common (though I think most people prefer rotary openers). I can only suppose your negative impression of it stems from lack of experience with it - I admit it is somewhat harder to use than the rotary ones, but when you get used to it, it's a snap, and much more reliable.

    In the army (here), each battle ration comes with one of those foldable openers. One time, I was on kitchen duty, and had the distinct pleasure of opening several hundred small (100 mL, I guess) minced-tomato cans with a foldable opener. Damn thing kept folding... You see, we had a large mechanical opener (with a crank handle), but the cans were too small for it. I guess the army got a bargain price on tiny cans, so they got those instead of something more reasonable for an army kitchen (think 5-10 liter can).

  5. miguelpress Says:

    You can add another country to the P-38 list: Spain. Most people I know would only use their old trusty foldable things... don't tell my 85-year old grandma to upgrade to such a complicate thing!

  6. Frosted Donut Says:

    Those can openers used to come in standard US military C-rations from WWII on into the 60's. I grew up on military bases, and the Boy Scouts leaders would toss a couple of cases of C-rats into the back of a pick-up as "food" for a weekend campout (we had to give them the packs of 4 cigarettes that came in each ration).

    The hole made it easy to fit on a dog tag chain (so it would always be handy). As I recall, once you got the hang of it you could whip through cans pretty easily. And as okedem mentioned, it doesn't care how large or small the can is.

    But realistically, it's the kind of thing you'd want when hiking or in a war zone.

  7. tore Says:

    I prefer this old model, kind of a halfway point between rotary and bayonet:

  8. thecanopener Says:

    1.5" sounds way to small to be useful.
    I have one of these:
    It's 9cm/3.5" and works nicely. You rest your complete thumb against it then you open the can.
    The only problem is that the lid tends to be pushed into the can.

  9. OCT Says:

    I'm sure it's a problem of lesser concern for most, but you'd better hope you're right handed or at least ambidextrous if you cross paths with a P-38.

    I remember eating out of army ration packs and spending a good 5 minutes trying to open the first can I came to.

    The P-38 has been universally called the FRED by the Australian Defence Force for as long as I can remember.
    What's it stand for?
    F***ing Ridiculous Eating Device.

  10. Martti Says:

    Being from Finland, I had to come and defend my country. The "P38"-type opener is indeed very common here, and I prefer it above any other can openers. It has many advantages:

    It doesen't break
    It's easy and quick to use after you know how
    It's easy to wash after use, and to be sure no pesky oily fish is stuck somewhere in the mechanics
    It's small and not an inconvinience to carry anywhere you might take some canned food with you

    I agree, that a more complicated opener might be marginally easier to use (I've used many!) - but I have yet to see one that works reliably. They always have issues. They might break down, they might not "grab" onto oily can surfaces, etc etc.

    I am not saying that creating such a device is impossible, I'm just saying that I've yet to see a reliable one.

  11. FuzzyPlushroom Says:

    Part of the problem is that you wacky Finns eat oily fish out of a can, of course...!

  12. chrysilis Says:

    Ah Dan, you made a huge mistake!

    None of this P-38 stuff, you want one of the aforementioned FREDs. As you can see at it is actually a spoon as well which not only allows the consumption of the 'food' contained within but also increases your leverage possibilities into usefulness! And don't forget that that small knife may save you one day.

    If you want some I have a few around the place (left over from ration packs) and would be more than happy to send you some :)

  13. Daniel.McCormick Says:

    The FRED is what I used as a child in AU. I didn't get the hang until I was in charge of feeding the dog at about 8yo but it was a breeze afterward.
    I always went back to it when the stupid rotarys kept slipping. Buggared if I know where they came from, Non of my family were in the Army since WWII.

  14. peridot Says:

    I use a Swing-a-way brand rotary opener (fairly usual here in Canada) and have never had trouble with it gripping cans or failing to open them. My mother never did either, though she recently replaced hers after 25 years of service (it was getting a little rusty). There's definitely a knack to the P-38 and Swiss Army Knife ones, but I find the rotary ones easier even having acquired the knack.

    I once lived in a house with someone who had a "high-tech" rotary opener that cut the can horizontally below the seal. It worked all right, but I hated it: he would open cans of cat food (short cylinders) then leave the food on the floor for the cat to eat. Just the sight of that sharp-edged cylinder sitting there like a cookie cutter made my flesh crawl. (Like most Canadian households, we didn't wear shoes indoors.)

  15. Daniel Rutter Says:

    The MagiCan is that sort of opener. It, too, turns cans into cookie-cutters, but it doesn't sharpen the edge, or twist it into a jagged sawblade like a P-38 does, so I've never cut myself on a can.

    A little squirt of silicone lube into the works once or twice a year keeps the MagiCan working very smoothly. You don't need much muscle strength to operate it. And although it's opened a lot of cans over the years - we're a four-cat household, now! - its cutting wheel is still very sharp.

  16. ex-parrot Says:

    My preference is to just bash the canned food against the nearest rock until it splits open messily and spills its contents on the ground.

  17. Chazzozz Says:

    Like bonkabonka, I rather prefer the opener found on a Swiss Army knife. Same concept, but a lot better engineering. I remember opening many cans at camp with it, and never had any difficulty. In fact, when the household el-cheapo rotary broke down some years ago, the Swiss Army knife was promoted to Chief Opener position for a while (until a new, suitably-approved rotary was found and bought).

  18. Bern Says:

    Yeah, we had a few FREDs hanging around the house when I was a kid - they came in handy (and got a lot of use) when the el-cheapo rotary opener wouldn't grip the can properly.

    They were permanently retired after we got a MagiCan - those things are ridiculously easy to use, if you buy a proper one. I have seen an el-cheapo clone that was no better than the el-cheapo rotaries.

    I think my dad kept a few (dozen?) after his time as a Nasho in the 60s, while my brothers brought more home from naval cadets in the early 80s. Knowing my parents, there's probably still a few dozen stashed away in a cupboard somewhere, "just in case". :-)

  19. unfunk Says:

    I can't believe people are seriously claiming these things are superior to even the crappy $2 "butterfly" opener you can buy at the local shops here! Just how oily are these cans that you're opening? You'd have to seriously fuck up to get some oily fish in the mechanics, and completely completely uncoordinated to not open a can faster with one of those than that P38 derivative thing...

  20. Garett Smith Says:

    When I was in army cadets we used to collect FRED's and sell them to American sailors for $5 a pop when they were in town, they loved them as they were much more useful than their issued versions.

  21. torgeaux Says:

    I got one from the First Sergeant of my company about 16 years ago. I can tell you that the can opener is much, much easier to use with practice. It's also a bottle opener, it opens CDs and will function reasonably well as a standard screw-driver.

    I once fixed my Nissan Bluebird's distributor with just this, cutting and splicing a wire that had broken. Love this thing, and it hasn't left my keychain for more than a decade.

    Oh, and it's also responsible for dozens of nasty jabs/cuts from a too hasty hand thrust into my pocket.

  22. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Yes - for the benefit of readers who haven't played with a P-38-type opener, the folding blade pretty much just flops around loosely. So having one just bouncing around in your pocket or on your dog-tags is likely to occasionally test your masculinity. I'd think that it'd also do a number on your pocket lining pretty darn quickly.

    I just spent 30 seconds experimenting, and now think that this problem is solvable. Take a tiny rare-earth magnet (it's easy to find disc magnets only 2mm by 1mm on eBay these days), and glue it to the larger part of the P-38/51 so that it lines up with the point of the blade when it's in its "stowed" position.

    Now the blade will "latch" in place, but still be easy to flick out for use. The magnet shouldn't impede operation of the opener, either.

  23. Anthony Hersey Says:

    You don't want to do multiple punctures so much as a "sawing" action with this little beast as you turn the can. I used to use one as my primary (not sure of its provenance, but it certainly was at least a decade older than I was), but a big grippy handle unit is much nicer on the hands.

  24. bookworm13 Says:

    Add Japan to the list of using-primitive-world-war-2-era-can-opener-countries. I gave a modern rotary can opener as a present to my Japanese host family as a gift, but I think they just keep it as a conversation piece.

    Also amazingly primitive for such a modern country is their washing machines. You need to move your dirty, wet clothes from the general agitation area to a spin dry basket by hand and you also need to change the dirty water itself.

    The only reason I could come up why the same nation that came up with the Wii and PSP would do things this way is that can opening and washing clothes are traditionally women's duties. So shoot me.

  25. jmguazzo Says:

    It was available in Belgium. I don't know if it's still today.

    When I was a kid (around the 80's), my father used to eat those sardines can where you had one of those opener provided with it. I even tried to open cans with my little hands at that time and quickly said to my father that he was so "yesterday" when there were already "Electric Can Opener".

    I even remember my father throwing trough the window a "swing a way" that failed to open a can and go fetch a P-38. He then opened his can proudly.
    (There was a river behind the window and he had to buy a new swing-a-way for my mom...)

    Years later, when I was old(or crazy?) enough to go to music festival with camping, I had one of those with me.
    And when it's raining and that you've lost some of your dexterity (Belgium is well known for it's beer...or else for those living close to The Netherlands...),
    it's the easiest to use... but definitely not the quickest.

    It can even be used on today's cans with a tab when you've broken the tab while trying to open that f***ing can ! (Based on a real story)

    Btw, In French, the name of a can opener is "Ouvre-boƮtes" ( = "box opener") and it seems that those like P-38 are called pocket by can opener collectors.
    And in French, the official name for a "can opener collector" is Appertophiliste. This comes from Nicolas Appert called on wikipedia the "father of canning".

    Dan, are you an becoming Appertophiliste ?

  26. Stark Says:

    I love my P-38. It goes with me everywhere on my keychain and has saved my bacon more times than I care to count. I've used it for everything from it's designed purpose to opening a wound up so I could clean and suture it to minor engine repairs and building an emergency shelter. Heck, I've even fixed it to a stick to make a spear for fishing before and caught my dinner with it (that little blade makes a passable barb when lashed to a spear)... which I then cleaned with it as well. Best salmon I ever ate.

    Damned thing is worth many times it's weight in gold to me.

    However, while it will open any can you have a need to open, it is a poor substitute in the kitchen for any modern rotary opener.

    If you need a can opener that can double in for many other small tools in a pinch that costs nearly nothing, weighs even less, and can be kept in a handy location on your person at almost all times.... well, frankly it's unbeatable.

  27. Daniel Rutter Says:

    Anne, who's spent some time in Finland and became a dab hand with their larger one-piece P-38-type openers, has confirmed that although using one speedily is like riding a bike, using the P-38 is still bloody awful. It's just not big enough. If you made it through Boot Camp without breaking a sweat then you'll wonder what the problem is, but normal human hand strength is insufficient, especially if you're opening a large tin.

    Clearly, this means I now need to buy some P-51s (done!) and FREDs (eBay sniping software set!) and conduct further research.

  28. OCT Says:

    If you'll excuse the awful picture quality, here's my standard issue ADF FRED compared to what I believe is it's American counterpart.
    The Australian one is on the bottom, and measures almost exactly 9cm in length.

    I can see why commenter #20 managed to sell the Aussie ones off for $5 each.

  29. derrida derider Says:

    I can tell you bastards are all well co-ordinated right handers. Bloody things - just try using one of these Tools of Satan left handed when you're pretty clumsy to begin with.

  30. frasera Says:

    interesting, it does seem like a pain, probably similar to the types on swiss army knives.

    i prefer side cut can openers. they slice the solder joint or something. leaving the can without sharp edges, the top just lifts off in one piece like a perfect lid and is even reclosable to toss in the fridge:) the one i have is the good cook bradshaw. looks odd but works good

  31. Manne Says:

    At home (in Finland) we use a Fiskars can opener, which is like a P-38 but with a handle. Courtesy of our present landlady (a German woman), we also have a rotary-style can opener that hasn't been used after some first attempts. Probably in this case the reason is just a combination of habit and the low quality of the (probably from IKEA) rotary opener.

    Back home I once attended a presentation at the University of Industrial Arts of Helsinki, where the presenter made fun of all fancy can openers when all you really need is a piece of sharpened and bent metal. "It's a quite sufficient can opener as long as you are opening less than five cans a day." or something to that effect.

  32. nonreality1 Says:

    I sold these for years as a manager for an Army Navy Store in the US for .25 cents each. That was 15 years ago but day in and day out they sold. Once you get used to them they work very well and as on post has said they are not meant for a kitchen replacement can opener. But they do work, especially if they are an original and not a cheap copy. Plus in a pinch they can do many other things. Quite a deal actually.

  33. Ian Says:

    Regarding stabbing yourself in the... er... everything, I've just played around with one of my P-38's (Curse you Dan's Data, ebay, and poor impulse control) and an old HDD magnet, and I've managed to magnetise the body such that the blade sticks to it nicely, without overly magnetising the blade at the same time.

    Not a superbly robust solution, but it might work for pocket/lanyard/keychain duties.

  34. Alex Whiteside Says:

    The crappy electric can opener in our apartment broke down the other day, so we got a $0.99 "butterfly"-style opener, the kind where you use the handles to trap a metal point in the edge of the tin and grind the whole tin around with a sharp gear connected to the "butterfly" handle. I recalled disliking those openers, and preferring the kind with a rotating blade connected to the can-turning wheel, but those were $20 out here for no readily appreciable reason, so I was stuck. It was an unbelievable world of pain. I imagine that anyone who prefers the P-38 does so because their experience with a rotary opener is the awful butterfly type.

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