The Fiery History of the Molotov Cocktail

Date:15 April 2022 Author: Juandre

The near-total mobilization of Ukraine’s citizenry in the face of war with Russia has resulted in everyday people pitching in to help the resistance. One weapon in mass production, the Molotov cocktail, is so simple that citizens can make it in their kitchens with ordinary ingredients. The result is a lethal, handheld weapon that is even effective against the most heavily-protected tanks.

The Molotov cocktail’s origin story is unknown, but one of its first reported uses in conflict took place during the Spanish Civil War of 1936 to 1939. The improvised weapon got a permanent name during the Russo-Finnish War, when it was named after the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, the face of Soviet policy that eventually led to an invasion of Finland. The name “Molotov cocktail” was meant as a retort to invading Red Army troops.

Typically, a Molotov cocktail is made from a glass bottle, and the name is an allusion to the fact that it’s usually a vodka, wine, or other spirits bottle. The bottle is then filled with gasoline or petrol, though alcohol and other flammable liquids can be substituted. The mouth of the bottle is then stuffed with a rag soaked in the filler liquid, capping the bottle with a flammable wick.

russians continue assault on outskirts of kyiv
Members of a Territorial Defence unit play checkers with Molotov cocktails while guarding a barricade on the outskirts of eastern Kyiv on March 6, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The cloth wick, which acts as the igniter, is plainly visible.

Molotovs are mostly seen in urban combat, when enemy troops and armored vehicles must often enter handheld-weapons range. Once a target enters range, the wick is lit with a match or cigarette lighter, and the “cocktail” is thrown. Molotovs are ideally hurled by many people at once, saturating a target area and increasing the chances real damage is done.

Once thrown, the bottle breaks on impact, shattering the glass and spreading the liquid within. The fiery wick then ignites the fluid, creating a self-sustaining fire. Against enemy troops on foot, a Molotov cocktail is a terrifying weapon that can cause serious burns. The fire also creates no-go zones where soldiers cannot pass, and the smoke reduces battlefield visibility.

molotov army
A U.S. soldier throws a Molotov against the grill of a Soviet tank in the field manual FM 21-75, Combat Skills of the Soldier.

Molotov cocktails are surprisingly good against armored vehicles. Even the most heavily-armored tanks capable of shrugging off anti-tank shells can suffer serious damage from a Molotov cocktail. All tanks have crew hatches, vision slits, exhaust ports, and other apertures. If a Molotov impacts on or near an open aperture, burning liquid can flow through, causing panic, injuries, and even a fire inside the vehicle. The fire creates smoke, which can turn into a choking hazard for the crew and restrict their vision outside the vehicle. Molotovs are also effective when thrown against the grills of air-cooled engines, causing them to catch fire.

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