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.
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.