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DogTagsRus has teamed with Georgia-Outfitters to bring you the most concise history we can of the P-38 and P-51 Can Openers.  We are trying to bring to you both the technical and humanitarian history of the "thingamajig" know as "The Greatest Army Invention Ever" - the P-38.

For all your Tru-Spec, BDU and military clothing needs please visit our friends at Georgia-Outfitters.com


P-38 Can Opener History and Information



"John Wayne"

The P-38 can opener has been called on of the greatest military inventions of all time. 

The P-38 can opener is still in the military inventory and is currently assigned NSN 7330-00-242-3506. 

Below is listed select technical excerpts from the military specification that addresses the P38 can openers.  The information is reprinted here verbatim from the actual military specification.  Information on the P-51 can be located on the P-51 Information page [Here]

HISTORY of the P-38 Can Opener

Being technically minded we overlook the fact that most people look for the humanity in things before the engineering for this reason we have enclosed a reprint of the article written by Col. Renita Menyhert, then Major Renita Foster.  This reprint is with her permission and we feel that is a must read for anyone interested in the history of the P-38 Can Opener.

The original article titled The greatest Army Invention ever, appeared in the military publication PENTAGRAM on August 18, 1986.

The article has been copied and published many more times since it's authoring in 1986.

The resolution of the article copy we were able to obtain is dismal at best.  We contacted Col. Renita Foster and she was kind enough to e-mail her original draft and we have published it on a separate page for you to review.  To review the original draft of Col. Renita Fosters composition it's entirety click on the below button to be taken directly to the page.

The greatest Army invention ever

     Dear Kobie, I sent a note and P38 to your Dog Tag business address, but just in case it didn't make it I'll do it here as well. First, I do congratulate you on such an ingenious business. I'm sure it will take you many places in addition to college. I am so touched someone your age is interested in this marvelous invention and you have my permission to use it anyway you choose. In fact, I would love to see it in print again so help yourself.  The P38 was one of my favorite stories. It took three years to write and also won me an award so it is special and I'm pleased to hear people are still interested in it. I happen to be from Texas also. Although I was born in Dallas, my father was in the Air Force and we moved quite a bit. However, I spent many years in San Antonio and now regard that as home. As soon as my 30 years is up I hope to move back their for good. I am in the Army, by the way, and have enjoyed being a feature writer for the service most of my career. I hope you enjoy the article.  Good luck and let me know how your report comes out in class. By the way, my husband proposed with a P38, that's why it's so special to me!

Sincerely, Col. Renita Menyhert (Foster)
Monday, May 10, 2004

For more publications, articles and stories about the P-38 Can Opener please see our dedicated ARTICLES page.

The P-38 Can Opener was designed by the Army for use in the field.

These two photographs show the P-38 and it's issue wrapper as it would have been found in C-Rations of 1945.  Look in the lower left corner of the photograph on the left, the photograph on the right is an enlargement of the original photograph to show the P-38's in more detail.

One of the more interesting things about the P-38 can opener is that if anyone knows anything about the military then they do not do anything very fast.  Well the P-38 appears to be one of the exceptions to the rule.  In 1942 the P-38 was conceived, designed, prototyped and went into production in less than 30 days.  For the Government to do anything in less than 30 days is a phenomenal accomplishment.

Writer and Author Don Lancaster, webmaster of www.tinaja.com expresses his interest in the P-38 as one of the greatest inventions of all time in his article, Elegant SimplicityThis article appeared in Midnight Engineering January-February, 1994.  Below is an excerpt from that article that Mr. Lancaster graciously allowed us to publish here.

     One of the goals I have consistently sought out over the years is to develop designs and products which inherently possess an elegant simplicity.  Like many truly great concepts, elegant simplicity can be hard to pin down.  But you sure know it when you've got it.
     One clue is when industry insiders end up shaking their heads in stunned disbelief.
     Elegant simplicity combines the best of Schumacher's "do more with less" and Buckminster Fuller's "appropriate technology".  Yeah, Whole Earth Catalog stuff.  It goes way on back to that ancient Ockham's Razor principle of the most fundamentally direct explanation often ending up the most correct.  Or Einstein's "Always seek out the simplest possible solution - but none simpler".
     Probably the best way we can get a handle on elegant simplicity is to look at several products and designs that clearly have it.  Here are my selections for a few of the all time winners . . .

     I consider the P-38 can opener to be by far the finest invention of the twentieth century.  Bar none.  Compared to the P-38, such utter frivolities as radio, television, autos, or aviation are not even in the same league.  Yes, even Hostess Twinkies pale by comparison.
     For sheer bang for the buck and inherent ergonomics, nothing can remotely compare.  The P-38 opens cans.  Any classic tin can, any time, any place.  It runs forever.  No batteries required.  Fully portable.  Self-protecting.  Cost is zilch.  No users manuals or tutorials.
     Let's see what we got here.  Two tiny pieces of stamped steel.  One is grooved for extra strength.  The blade folds flat for storage or pops open for use.  The first time you see one, you will swear that it couldn't possibly work.  But it sure does.  The secret is "walking" around the folded rim present on all classic cans.  Your thumb and forefinger form a double lever that pivots on the rim.  With a surprising amount of force magnification.  Probably many tons of pressure per square inch at the blade edge.
     The elegant simplicity here is profound: ultra low cost and very small size.  Perfectly matched to both the user and the job to be done.  Use of the absolute minimum of force concentration to reliably carry out one well defined task.  While a throwaway item intended for one time use, these last forever.  A classic in every sense of the word.

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To review Don Lancaster's complete article and Midnight Engineering click below

 Elegant Simplicity

For more publications, articles and stories about the P-38 Can Opener please see our dedicated ARTICLES page.

TECHNICAL DETAILS and ENGINEERING behind the P-38 Can Opener

Below are selected excerpts from the Government specification that covers the P-38 can opener.


Pertinent Documents:

A-A-52203 - 1996
MIL-O-20582C - 1967
MIL-O-20582D - 1970
MIL-O-20582E - 1988

Official Nomenclature: OPENER, CAN, HAND, FOLDING, TYPE I

This specification is mandatory for use by all Department and agencies of the Department of Defense.

1.1 Scope.  This specification covers a lightweight, folding, hand-operated can opener for severing tops of rimmed metal cans.

1.2 Classification.  The can openers shall be of the following types as specified (see 6.2):

     Type I - Small, for opening individual portion-sized cans in the field.
     Type II - Large, for opening group portion-sized cans in the field.

2.1.2 Other Government documents, drawings, and publications.  The following other Government documents, drawings, and publications form a part of this specification to the extent specified herein.  Unless otherwise specified, the issues shall be those in effect on the date of the solicitation.



          2-9-148 - Opener, Can, Hand, Folding, Type I; Can Opener and Directions for Use
          5-13-4260 - Opener, Can, Hand, Folding, Type II

3.2.1  Carbon Steel, sheet and strip.  The material for the can openers shall be carbon steel sheet and strip conforming to numbers 1050, 1055, or 1065 of QQ-S-700.

3.3  Design and Construction.  The can openers shall be designed and constructed as specified herein and as shown on the applicable drawing.  The openers shall completely sever the tops of circular, rectangular, or tray pack cans, as applicable, when tested as specified in  The openers shall be assembled so the knife blade offers resistance to changing from the closed position to the open position and from the open position to the closed position.  Opening of the blade shall be accomplished by use of the hand without the use of an auxiliary instrument.  It is not required that the blade be retained firmly in the open position.

3.3.1  Heat treatment (hardness).  The body and the blade of the can openers shall be heat treated to a Rockwell "C" hardness of not less than 47 nor more than 55 and shall be verified by the test specified in

3.3.2  Knife Blade.  The knife blade shall have a sharp, tapered, cutting edge formed by grinding, milling, shearing or coining.

3.3.3  Finish (plating).  All burrs and rough edges shall be removed.  The opener shall be tin plated in accordance with type I of MIL-T-10727.  The thickness of plating on all surfaces shall be not less than 0.0001 inch when tested as specified in

3.4  Identification Marking.  Each type I and type II can opener shall be permanently and distinctly stamped with letters "U.S." and the manufacturer's name or trademark.  Markings shall be of the size and in the locations shown on the applicable drawing.  Markings shall be applied so there is no distortion or unevenness opposite the markings or penetration through the metal.

4.5.3  Cutting.  Each sample can opener shall be tested to determine that it completely severs the tops of both circular and rectangular cans as required by 3.3.  The test for the type I can opener shall be performed on one commercial No. 2 circular can and one rectangular can measuring approximately 6-5/8 inches long by 4-1/8 inches wide by a minimum of 1-5/8 inches high.  The test for the type II can opener shall be performed on one rectangular 1001 by 1206 by 200 size tray pack can, and on one commercial No. 10 circular can.  Any non-conformance with the specified requirements shall constitute failure of this test.  Unit packing.  Each can opener, with the blade folded flat, shall be packed in an envelope made from material comprised of not less than 0.0005-inch thick polyethylene coated on not less than 25 pounds basis weight (24 by 36 - 500) unbleached Kraft paper and the seams shall be formed by heat sealing.  The envelope containing one can opener shall be closed by heat sealing.  The maximum dimensions of the envelope shall be 1-11/16 inches by 2-3/4 inches for the type I can opener, and 2 inches by 3-1/4 inches for the type II can opener.

5.4.1  Special Marking.  Each unit pack shall have printed thereon a diagram and directions for use as shown on the applicable drawing.

6.1  Intended Use - The type I can opener is intended for use by military personnel in the field to open combat-type rations, in-flight rations, and emergency rations.  The type II can opener is intended for use by military personnel in the field to open military tray pack and round can components of the 36-soldier Tray Pack Meal Modules.

6.5  Subject term (key word) listing.
     Can opener
     Meal module
     Tray pack

This can opener was designed to open smaller cans such as commercial No. 2 can with a top diameter of 2-1/8 inches.  A #2 can would be the same size as a standard soup can.

In section 5.4.1 Special Markings.  It states that each unit pack shall have the diagram and directions for use shown on the drawing imprinted on the physical packaging.

Click on photo for printable P-38 directions.

Official Government Drawing for the P-38 can opener.  Click the photo below to be taken to the drawing.  Actual copies of this drawing are available for purchase in our on-line catalog.

  Click on the Photo to the Left to see a copy of the P-38 Government engineering drawing


Reprints of this drawing are available for purchase.


We have had so many requests for Original Issue - full sized - sets of prints or engineering drawings that we now offer the prints for sale.  Plotted as full D sized engineering drawings these prints make great wall hangers, posters or conversation starters.  There is so much history associated with these can openers that almost 8 out of 10 people will instantly recognize the can opener and the prints encourage conversation - lead in to war stories and we guarantee at the least they will conjure up dreams, memories and tall tales.

We take framed prints to all our on site shows and venues such as car shows, gun shows, etc.  The prints themselves generate as much interest as the can openers.  Many people want to copies of the engineering drawings after they know the history of the P-38 or P-51.

Note:  The drawing above has been modified for use on the web site and has been watermarked to protect our research efforts.  Purchased copies of these prints are original copies (unadulterated) and are delivered plotted as D sized (22"x34") engineering prints. 

NOTE: Both the P-38 and P-51 can opener is considered contraband when traveling on a commercial air line.  These can openers will be confiscated by airport security personnel.  See the below excerpt from a testimonial.

For more publications, articles and stories about the P-38 Can Opener please see our dedicated ARTICLES page.

Master Sgt. Steve Wilson

38 ways to use the P-38 private

1.   can opener                                                                             
2.   seam ripper
3.   screwdriver
4.   clean fingernails
5.   cut fishing line
6.   open paint cans
7.   window scraper
8.   scrape around floor corners
9.   digging
10. clean out groove on Tupperware lids
11. reach in and clean out small cracks
12. scrape around edge of boots
13. bottle opener
14. {in the field} gut fish
15. {in the field} scale fish
16. test for "doneness" when baking on a camp fire
17. prying items
18. strip wire
19. scrape pane in the field
20. lift key on flip top cans
21. chisel
22. barter
23. marking tool
24. deflating tires
25. clean sole of boot/shoe
26. pick teeth
27. measurement
28. striking flint
29. stirring coffee
30. puncturing plastic coating
31. knocking on doors
32. Morse Code
33. box cutter
34. opening letters
35. write emergency messages
36. scratch an itch
37. save as a souvenir
38. rip off rank for on the spot promotion

Kobie read an article about a Mr. Ron Hingst of Howell, Michigan.  Mr. Hingst had his P-38 of 30 years taken up at the airport as he traveled on business.  Kobie elected to sent him a replacement and this was the response we received.

: Kobie:
: Yes I am the guy who lost his P-38 of 30 some years.
: Thank you for the kind offer and the replacement P-38's.
: Two other fellows also sent me a P-38 Replacement.
: I have been carrying my new P-38 for two years now...
: fly for business...and nobody has said a word.
: Thanks again for contacting me and good luck with your business.
: Ron Hingst
: Howell, Michigan (near Detroit)

For more publications, articles and stories about the P-38 Can Opener please see our dedicated ARTICLES page.

This is the article that captured Kobie's interest in Mr. Hingst.

By Neal Rubin / The Detroit News

Neal Rubin


A security guard snatched Ron Hingst's P-38. Hingst's P-38 was not the pistol of the same name or fighter plane from World War II (above). It was a can opener.

   THE ARMY gave Ron Hingst a P-38 when he was 19 years old, and he carried it faithfully for 35 years, through good times and bad times and lots of airports.
   A security guard at Newark International snatched it away this month, and now there's an empty place in the Howell man's heart. Also, his keyring is lighter.
   Hingst's P-38 was not the Walther pistol of the same name, or for that matter the P-38 Lightning fighter plane from World War II. It was a can opener -- a 1 1/2-inch-tall piece of metal with a small, hinged triangular beak that folded out to puncture lids.
   The Army developed the P-38 in all of 30 days in 1942. Many consider it the military's greatest invention. It doesn't break, rust or dull, and until C-rations were replaced by Meals, Ready to Eat, the P-38 was a soldier's invitation to dinner.
   As two generations of veterans can tell you, the P-38 was also a first-rate screwdriver, boot cleaner, letter opener, carburetor repair tool and anything else you needed it to be. But today, apparently, it's dangerous and obsolete.
   Hingst, 54, flies at least once a month. A few weeks ago, he and his P-38 set off to Quebec City to play hockey. He went from Detroit to Boston and Boston to Newark, and his can opener passed muster twice.
   Then, on the final leg of the trip, a guard stopped him. "You got to give me that," the man said.
   "C'mon," Hingst protested. But the clock was ticking, the line behind him was only growing longer, "and what could I do? I'm going to argue about my can opener?"
   Coming home through Boston a few days later, Hingst saw a uniformed National Guardsman and decided to get himself some sympathy.
   "Can you believe I had my P-38 confiscated?" Hingst said.
   "Well, it should have been," said the Guardsman. "The 38 is a sidearm."
   Hingst thus discovered that the P-38 is no longer standard issue. So he still doesn't have his can opener, and now he feels old.                         

The Detroit News Feb 20, 2002

For more publications, articles and stories about the P-38 Can Opener please see our dedicated ARTICLES page.

A word from a P-38 Manufacturer:

There was one problem with the manufacture of the P-38 and P-51 can openers - Hydrogen Embrittlement.  Most people say hydrogen what?  Hydrogen Embrittlement is a condition that effects metal and makes it brittle and weak.  For technical definitions of Hydrogen Embrittlement see the resources at the end of this article.

Mr. xxx said, "as you know the blades of the P-38 and P-51 can openers are hardened between 47 - 52 on the Rockwell "C" scale.  This is very close to brittle."  "We had constant problems with hydrogen embrittlement as a result of the plating process."

Hydrogen embrittlement is a phenomenon that affects high-strength steel.  Hydrogen--often from pickling or plating--invades the grain structure of a high strength steel, making it brittle an subject to catastrophic failure.

The best approach is to avoid or minimize processes that cause hydrogen embrittlement. The second best approach is to bake the parts to drive the hydrogen out, preferably very soon after plating. Some people feel that some degree of permanent damage occurs during the time between plating and baking, and that it is thus vital to bake immediately. Others feel that the old standard "bake within 24 hours" is sufficient.
-- Ted Mooney, P.E. - Finishing Technology - Brick, NJ




3 for $1.00
$0.75 each

We cannot express enough thanks to Georgia-Outfitters.com and Mr. James Clarke.  In the interest of offering the most comprehensive history of the P-38 and P-51 can openers on the Internet, Mr. Clarke has teamed up with DogTagsRus to work together so we may expand our offerings as it relates to these can openers.  DogTagsRus wants to thank Mr. Clarke for his contributions and specifically the use of his photographs.  By allowing DogTagsRus to use existing photographs we have been able to concentrate on bringing you more information by not having to spend our time duplicating Mr. Clarke's efforts.

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