The GI P-38 Can Opener

Perfection in a Low-Tech Device

It's an unsung hero among the "Ten Essentials" for the Outdoors People of the World!


The hot Southern Oregon sun beat down on me that August day of 1965. I was hungry, so hungry I felt eager at the prospect of opening my first-ever box of Army C-rations. Nearby, the forest fire that I was fighting smouldered, but I ignored it as I threw down my Pulaski and ripped through the wrappings around my "ration." Inside, I was confronted with several cans and no way to open them. Then a tiny shiny metal object about an inch long fell out and into the pine needles. My solution was at hand. The perfect can-opener! No gears, no wheels, no electricity, no plastic! Elegant and perfect in its simple mechanical design and execution. Should be in the Smithsonian. These two images display my 1962 vintage GI P-38 can opener, still working perfectly after 45 years, although a bit the worse for wear. Officially, its instruction sheet called it a P-38, but in the Forest Service it was commonly nicknamed a "Church Key," which harked back to early bottle openers which accessed alcoholic and often-restricted substances such as beer! Invented in 1942 for WW II, some have called it the "Army's Best Invention," famed for its speed of can-opening, and also revered for its multi-tool capabilities, eg. it can be used as a screwdriver, a fingernail cleaner, a dull mini-knife, and much more! I read that the "38" referred to how many punches around the rim were required to open a can of C-rations. I haven't tried that test myself but it seems about right.

Sadly, since this device went mass-market, its quality has often gone downhill, and there sometimes isn't so much to admire about the perfection of the device. It seems too simple to mess-up, but I've bought some new ones from time to time at mass-market outlets and been disappointed. Perhaps the metal is cheaper and softer, but they just lacked the fine cutting abilities of the original from that old C-ration box, so my stained 1962 opener maintains a prime spot on my mini-biner that goes with me on any and all outdoor excursions!

Please Note: All Material below, and in all my "History of Gear" webpages, is copyrighted, and no usage of my material is permitted unless explicit permission is granted by me, Bruce B. Johnson, owner of ...... Editors: Please contact me ( if you have interest in publishing....Others: if you were involved with one of the old-line, vintage gear companies and have a story to tell in these pages, please contact me soon.


MY BOOK ABOUT FROSTLINE KITS IS NOW PUBLISHED IN A DELUXE HARDBACK EDITION. IT CONTAINS A GOOD DEAL OF ADDITIONAL INFORMATION AND NEW PHOTOGRAPHY. PLEASE VISIT MY FROSTLINE PAGE IF INTERESTED. NEAR THE TOP OF THAT PAGE YOU WILL SEE A "BANNER" THAT YOU CLICK ON TO GET TO MY PUBLISHER. My second "History of Gear" book covers the story and GERRY Mountaineering Equipment Company and is titled "GERRY, To Live in the Mountains." It was released May 2008... My third book is titled Holubar Mountaineering Ltd , published October 2009. I've had lots of help with the Holubar book from the surviving Holubar, Ms. Linda Holubar, as well as the Company's ex-President Jim Kack and numerous other ex-Holubar staff.



Main Page: Essays and pictures about the Pioneers of the Outdoor Gear Revolution, 1935-The Present, 45+ pages, six published history of gear books, and still expanding!

Frostline Kits, Holubar's competitor in the kit market. The Founder of Frostline was an early employee/collaborator of George Lamb and Gerry Cunningham in Boulder!


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Page last revised 6/28/2017