In 1942, the Second World War was in full swing. The Declaration of the United Nations, signed by China, the UK, the USA, the USSR and 22 other nations, was signed, unilaterally declaring total war against the Axis powers.
The United States had fully entered the conflict, the Battle of Midway was around the corner, the Soviet forces had launched a major assault against the German front, and the United States Marine Corps invented the best can opener ever to be seen by man.
Designed to accompany the K-ration kits developed as a daily food ration to accompany American soldiers into the war, the P-38 can opener was part of the standard WWII era kit and has been named the ‘best invention of the US army’. With a simple, idiot-proof design, the P-38 can opener is known for it’s toughness and dependability, and is still in production and used around the world today, over seven decades later.
What is the P-51?
With the official military designation “US ARMY POCKET CAN OPENER” and “OPENER, CAN, HAND, FOLDING, TYPE I”, the P-38 does exactly as it is named- opens cans.
Nicknamed the ‘John Wayne’ by United States Marines due to a rumor that the actor of the same name used the can opener in a training film used to educate recruits on how to open K-rations, the P-51 shares a military designation with the North American P-51 Mustang fighter plane.
In active use by the United States armed forces from 1942 until today, the P-51 works on any size can, and will function in any environment, from deserts to icy tundra, in the dark, in the midday sun, and in all weather conditions from sandstorms to blizzards.
The P-51 can opener is still in active use today, and is handed out the American armed forces as part of ‘Tray Rations’, or canned bulk meals. Many disaster recovery efforts utilize the P-51 can opener and provide them alongside canned food in rescue situations, such as during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina emergency response, and during relief and aid efforts abroad in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.
Design and Construction
Made in the United States from cold rolled steel, the P-51 Can Opener is small and compact enough to fit in a pocket or on a keychain at approximately 2 inches in length. Consisting of two components, the P-51 Can Opener consists of a flat, wide base that functions as a handle, with a small metal blade that folds out to a 90 degree angle to pierce and cut through the lid of a can.
A small notch located beneath the hinged connecting point of the blade keeps the P-51 can opener hooked around the rim of a can as the tool is rotated around the can to remove the lid.
The utilitarian design of the P-51 can opener makes it suitable for a broad spectrum of practical uses not limited to can opening- in a pinch the P-51 can be used as a cutting edge, groove cleaner, screwdriver, fingernail cleaner, seam opener, and there are even unsubstantiated myths of both the P-51 and P-38 can openers being used as combat weapons during both WWII and the Vietnam War.
How Does the P-51 Can Opener Work?
The streamlined and sparse design of the P-51 makes it exceptionally simple and easy to use. Before usage, the cutting blade of the P-51 can opener is pivoted into the cutting position, 90 degrees away from its folded, stowed position in the base handle of the opener.
The method for use differs from right handed users to left handed users- a right handed user of the P-51 can opener holds the handle of the opener in the right hand with the cutting side of the blade directed downward and away from the user.
The left hand is used to hook the edge of the target can through a circular notch in the side of the P-51 can opener base, located on a long, flat section parallel to the cutting edge. The user holds the can in the left hand and rotates the P-51 can opener clockwise which punctures the lid of the can attached to the opener.
Continuing to rotate the can in the left hand, the user changes the direction of can rotation to counterclockwise while the right hand rocks the P-51 can opener first slightly counterclockwise, then clockwise, in a precise rhythmic alternating inverted corkscrew motion to ‘walk’ the blade of the P-51 360 degrees around the circumference of the can until it is very nearly completely free.
The cutting edge of the P-51 is then removed from the top of the can and used to lever the can lid out of the can itself. Subsequently the user folds the cutting edge of the can opener back into its stowed position along the flat of the handle and returns the P-51 can opener to its stored location for later use.
Left handed users of the P-51 Can Opener operate the device in a similar manner but reverse all instances of ‘left’ and ‘right’, and clockwise’ and ‘counterclockwise’ with the cutting blade of the P-51 directed towards themselves with a backwards inverse reverse corkscrew motion to walk the device backwards, or counterclockwise around the edge of the can.
Similar devices are employed by various armed forces around the world, including the Australian, New Zealand, Swedish and British Defence Forces.
P-51 Pricing and Availability
The P-51 can opener can be purchased in a wide variety of retails stores and army surplus shops around the world, in addition to a large number of online retailers such as Amazon for around $3.40 USD.
If you are looking for a robust, reliable, extremely lightweight, foolproof and almost indestructible can opener perfect for bug out bags, camping, backpacking, hunting, emergency or survival situations, or for surviving the apocalypse itself, the P-51 Can Opener is the perfect first and last line of defense in the war on canned food.