To the best of my knowledge it would be impossible to identify
the manufacturer of the great majority of J-38 keys. There are
four reasons: 1) Other than Lionel the keys are not marked, 2)
Multiple manufacturers made identical keys, 3) Single manufacturers
made different keys at different times, and 4) Many parts are
interchangeable, and for over 60 years these keys have
been in the hands of people who loved to experiment with equipment,
which means there are many "mix and match" keys to be found.
If most keys cannot be identified by manufacturer, and "as found" keys may not be "as manufactured", then it seems that the best approach to categorizing J-38's would be to try to find identifiable types of keys based on physical characteristics. If enough identical keys of a given type exist, then it becomes an identifiable type.
I have tried to organize the information I've collected about J-38's by dividing the keys that I own, have seen, or have read about into several types based on "clusters" or "groupings" of characteristics. These characteristics are based on the types of metal used and the shapes and sizes of the various components. Since these characteristics are based purely on appearance I use either the term "white metal", or the term "brass", to describe the metal parts.
In order to use a consistent nomenclature I have tried to find appropriate names for each of the parts of the keys based on common usage among collectors and other sources. Click here to see a complete list of parts along with the names I am using for them.
I have made subjective evaluations of the availability of each type as I have seen them being traded or sold in the marketplace. I have no way of knowing whether this also reflects the number of keys held by collectors. Perhaps, if we can agree on some of the basic types of J-38's, we can discover which types collectors are holding the most, and least, of.
Click on the names below to see pictures of keys in my collection that I believe are representative of the type.
The following are what I propose to be some of the distinct,
identifiable, types of J-38 keys, along with a
description of the identifying characteristics. I have invented
names for the types purely for convenience. I feel sure
that some of these types are incompletely identified, and that
there are many other identifiable types. This is just a start.
If you use the keys above to try to "reverse engineer" the WWII Army
Specifications for a J-38 key, two of the most likely specs would be
that the key is mounted on a bakelite base, 3" x 4 3/4", with
the characters "J-38" stamped, in white, on the front of the key
under the operating knob, and that the binding posts be configured as
described for the ARH type. If you accept these requirements, then
there are several very important keys which are like WWII J-38's in
many ways, but do not meet this "spec". The following are the keys,
that I know of, which I believe fall into this "not quite real WWII
J-38" group. Several of them are probably Signal Corps keys, but
are from the period after WWII.
There are some keys around that are just plain "fake" J-38's.
Sometimes this is on purpose, in order to capitalize on the
reputation of the J-38, and sometimes it is just something that
some ham, or other key user, put together out of his
or her parts bin.