Molotov cocktail

Molotov cocktail
A Finnish soldier with a Molotov cocktail in the Winter War.

The Molotov cocktail, also known as the petrol bomb, gasoline bomb, Molotov bomb, fire bottle, fire bomb, or simply Molotov, is a generic name used for a variety of improvised incendiary weapons. Due to the relative ease of production, they are frequently used by non-professionally equipped fighters and others who cannot afford, manufacture, or obtain hand grenades. They are primarily intended to set targets ablaze rather than instantly destroy them. The name "Molotov cocktail" was coined[1] by the Finns during the Winter War. The name is in insult to—rather than respect for—Vyacheslav Molotov, foreign minister for the USSR at the time and responsible for the partition of Finland[2].



A Molotov cocktail is a breakable bottle containing a flammable substance such as gasoline or a napalm-like mixture and usually a source of ignition such as a burning cloth wick held in place by the bottle's stopper. The wick is usually soaked in alcohol or kerosene, rather than gasoline.

In action, the wick is lit and the bottle hurled at a target such as a vehicle or fortification. When the bottle smashes on impact, the ensuing cloud of petrol droplets and vapour are ignited, causing an immediate fireball followed by a raging fire as the remainder of the fuel is consumed. Another method is to place a reactive substance in with the gasoline, and treat the label or wrapper paper with another chemical; when the bottle ruptures, the two chemicals mix and ignite; this is safer to handle if done properly, and does not betray the thrower with a visible flame prior to the throw.

Other flammable liquids such as diesel fuel, methanol, turpentine and E85 have been used in place of or with gasoline. Thickening agents such as Styrofoam, tar, strips of tyre tubing, sugar, blood, XPS foam, egg whites, motor oil, rubber cement, and dish soap have been added to help the burning liquid adhere to the target and create clouds of thick, choking smoke.[3]

Development and use in war


Improvised incendiary devices, that were much later called "Molotov cocktails", had been used for the first time[4] in the Spanish Civil War between July 1936 and April 1939. In 1936, General Francisco Franco ordered Spanish Nationalists to use the weapon against Soviet T-26 tanks supporting the Spanish Republicans in a failed assault on the Nationalist stronghold of Seseña, near Toledo, 80 km south of Madrid.[5] After that, both sides used simple petrol bombs or petrol soaked blankets with some success. Tom Wintringham, a veteran of the International Brigades, later publicised his recommended method of using them:

We made use of "petrol bombs" roughly as follows: take a 2lb glass jam jar. Fill with petrol. Take a heavy curtain, half a blanket, or some other heavy material. Wrap this over the mouth of the jar, tie it round the neck with string, leave the ends of the material hanging free. When you want to use it have somebody standing by with a light [i.e. a source of ignition]. Put a corner of the material down in front of you, turn the bottle over so that petrol soaks out round the mouth of the bottle and drips on to this corner of the material. Turn the bottle right way up again, hold it in your right hand, most of the blanket bunched beneath the bottle, with your left hand take the blanket near the corner that is wetted with petrol. Wait for your tank. When near enough, your pal [i.e. a friend] lights the petrol soaked corner of the blanket. Throw the bottle and blanket as soon as this corner is flaring. (You cannot throw it far.) See that it drops in front of the tank. The blanket should catch in the tracks or in a cog-wheel, or wind itself round an axle. The bottle will smash, but the petrol should soak the blanket well enough to make a really healthy fire which will burn the rubber wheels on which the tank track runs, set fire to the carburettor or frizzle the crew. Do not play with these things. They are highly dangerous.[6]

Khalkhin Gol

The Battle of Khalkhin Gol, a border conflict ostensibly between Mongolia and Manchukuo, saw heavy fighting between Japanese and Soviet forces. Short of anti-tank equipment, Japanese infantry attacked Soviet tanks with gasoline-filled bottles. Japanese infantrymen claimed that several hundred Soviet tanks had been destroyed this way, though Soviet loss records do not support this assessment.[7]


Soviet cluster bomb ironically called "Molotov bread basket". The "Molotov cocktail" was the Finnish response to this – "a drink to go with the food".

On 30 November 1939, after a futile year-and-a-half campaign to persuade the Finnish government to cede territory to the Soviet Union and give up some sovereignty by conceding specific military and political favors, the Soviet Union launched an offensive against Finland, starting what came to be known as the Winter War. The Finnish Army faced large numbers of Red Army tanks. Being short on anti-tank guns, they borrowed the design of an improvised incendiary device used in the just-concluded Spanish Civil War.

During the Winter War, the Soviet air force made extensive use of incendiaries and cluster bombs against Finnish troops and fortifications. When Soviet People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov claimed in radio broadcasts that they were not bombing, but rather delivering food to the starving Finns, the Finns started to call the air bombs Molotov bread baskets.[8] Soon they responded by attacking advancing tanks with "Molotov cocktails" which were "a drink to go with the food". At first, the term was used to describe only the burning mixture itself, but in practical use the term was soon applied to the combination of both the bottle and its contents. This Finnish use of the hand- or sling-thrown explosive against Soviet tanks was repeated in the subsequent Continuation War between the two countries.[1]

The original design of Molotov cocktail produced by the Finnish alcohol monopoly ALKO during the Winter War of 1939–1940. The bottle has storm matches instead of a rag for a fuse.

The Finns perfected the design and tactical use of the petrol bomb. The fuel for the Molotov cocktail was refined to a slightly sticky mixture of gasoline, kerosene, tar, and potassium chloride. Further refinements included the attachment of wind-proof matches or a phial of chemicals that would ignite on breakage thereby removing the need to pre-ignite the bottle and leaving the bottle about one-third empty was found to make breaking more likely.[9] As the cooling system was almost invariably placed where direct fire wouldn't hit them, the target of choice was the rear deck of a tank; the burning contents of the bottle would pour through the large cooling grills and ignite fuel, hydraulic fluids and ammunition.

A British and a War Office report dated June 1940 noted that:

The Finns' policy was to allow the Russian tanks to penetrate their defences, even inducing them to do so by 'canalising' them through gaps and concentrating their small arms fire on the infantry following them. The tanks that penetrated were taken on by gun fire in the open and by small parties of men armed with explosive charges and petrol bombs in the forests and villages... The essence of the policy was the separation of the AFVs from the infantry, as once on their own the tank has many blind spots and once brought to a stop can be disposed of at leisure.[10]

Molotov cocktails were eventually mass-produced by the Alko corporation at its Rajamäki distillery, bundled with matches to light them. Production totalled 450,000 during the Winter War. The original design of the Molotov cocktail was a mixture of ethanol, tar and gasoline in a 750 ml bottle. The bottle had two long pyrotechnic storm matches attached to either side. Before use, one or both of the matches was lit; when the bottle broke on impact, the mixture ignited. The storm matches were found to be safer to use than a burning rag on the mouth of the bottle.


Early in 1940, with the prospect of immediate invasion, the possibilities of the petrol bomb gripped the imagination of the British public. For the layman, the petrol bomb had the benefit of using entirely familiar and available materials[11] and they were quickly improvised in large numbers with the intention of using them against enemy tanks.[12] Although the petrol bomb might seem like a weapon of forlorn hope, the possibility of success was not quite as distant as might be imagined. 1940 was at the very end of the era of the light tank and the German behemoths of the later war years were still in the future: many tanks were surprisingly vulnerable.

When used in the right way and in sufficient numbers the Finns had found that they were effective. Although the experience of the Spanish Civil War received more publicity, the more sophisticated petroleum warfare tactics of the Finns were not lost on British commanders. In his 5 June address to LDV leaders, General Ironside said:

I want to develop this thing they developed in Finland, called the "Molotov cocktail," a bottle filled with resin, petrol and tar which if thrown on top of a tank will ignite, and if you throw half a dozen or more on it you have them cooked. It is quite an effective thing. If you can use your ingenuity, I give you a picture of a [road] block with two houses close to the block, overlooking it. There are many villages like that. Out of the top windows is the place to drop these things on the tank as it passes the block. It may only stop it for two minutes there, but it will be quite effective.[13]

Wintringham advised that a tank that was isolated from supporting infantry was potentially vulnerable to men who had the required determination and cunning to get close. Rifles or even a shotgun would be sufficient to persuade the crew to close all the hatches and then the view from the tank is very limited; a turret mounted machine gun has a very slow traverse and cannot hope to fend off attackers coming from all directions. Once sufficiently close, it is possible to hide where the tank’s gunner cannot see: “The most dangerous distance away from a tank is 200 yards; the safest distance is six inches.”[14] Petrol bombs will soon produce a pall of blinding smoke and a well placed explosive package or even a stout iron bar in the tracks can immobilise the vehicle leaving it at the mercy of further petrol bombs – which will suffocate the engine and possibly the crew – or an explosive charge or anti-tank mine.

By August 1940, the War Office produced training instructions for the creation and use of Molotov Cocktails. The instructions suggested scoring the bottles vertically with a diamond to ensure breakage and providing fuel soaked rag, windproof matches or a length of cinema film (made of highly flammable nitrocellulose) as a source of ignition.[15]

On 29 July 1940, manufacturers Albright & Wilson of Oldbury demonstrated to the RAF how their white phosphorus could be used to ignite incendiary bombs. The demonstration involved throwing glass bottles containing a mixture of petrol and phosphorus at pieces of wood and into a hut. On breaking, the phosphorus was exposed to the air and spontaneously ignited; the petrol also burned resulting in a fierce fire. Because of safety concerns, the RAF was not interested in white phosphorus as a source of ignition, but the idea of a self-igniting petrol bomb took hold. Initially known as an A.W. bomb, it was officially named the No 76 Grenade, but more commonly known as the SIP (Self Igniting Phosphorus) grenade. The perfected list of ingredients was yellow phosphorus, benzene, water and a two inch strip of raw rubber; all in a half-pint bottle sealed with a crown stopper.[16] Over time, the rubber would slowly dissolve making the contents slightly sticky and the mixture would separate into two layers – this was intentional and the grenade should not be shaken to mix the layers as this would only delay ignition.[17] When thrown against a hard surface, the glass would shatter and the contents would instantly ignite liberating choking fumes of phosphorus pentoxide and sulphur dioxide as well as producing a great deal of heat.[16] Strict instructions were issued to store the grenades safely, preferably underwater and certainly never in a house.[16] Mainly issued to the Home Guard as an anti-tank weapon, it was produced in vast numbers; by August 1941 well over 6,000,000 had been manufactured.[18]

However, there were voices that were more cautious. There were many who were sceptical about the efficacy of Molotov Cocktails and SIPs grenades against the more modern German tanks. Weapon designer Stuart Macrae witnessed a trial of the SIPs grenade at Farnborough: "There was some concern that, if the tank drivers could not pull up quickly enough and hop out, they were likely to be frizzled to death, but after looking at the bottles they said they would be happy to take a chance."[19] The drivers were proved right, trials on modern British tanks confirmed that Molotov and SIP grenades caused the occupants of the tanks "no inconvenience whatsoever".[20]

Wintringham, though enthusiastic about improvised weapons cautioned against a reliance on petrol bombs and repeatedly emphasised the importance of using explosive charges.[21][22]

Other fronts

A display of improvised munitions, including a Molotov cocktail, from the Warsaw Uprising, 1944.

During the Irish War of Independence, IRA fighters sometimes used sods of turf soaked in diesel fuel to attack British army barracks. Fencing wire was pushed through the sod to make a throwing handle.

The Polish home army developed a version[23] which ignited on impact without the need of a wick. Ignition was caused by a reaction between concentrated sulfuric acid mixed with the fuel and a mixture of potassium chlorate and sugar which was crystallized from solution onto a rag attached to the bottle.

The United States Marine Corps developed a version during World War II that used a tube of nitric acid and a lump of metallic sodium to ignite a mixture of petrol and diesel fuel.[24]

A bursting Molotov cocktail.

Modern use

While Molotov cocktails may be a psychologically effective method of disabling armoured fighting vehicles by forcing the crew out or damaging external components, most modern tanks cannot be physically destroyed or rendered completely inoperable by Molotov cocktails; only "disabled". Early Soviet tanks had poorly designed engine louvers which allowed the admission of fuel – this design fault was quickly rectified, and subsequent armoured vehicles had engine louvers which drained fuel (as well as rain water and dust) away from the engine. Most tanks and infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) of the 21st century have specially designed nuclear, biological and chemical protective systems that make them internally air-tight and sealed; they are well-protected from vapors, gases, and liquids. Modern tanks possess very thick composite armour consisting of layers of steel, ceramics, plastics and Kevlar, and these materials have melting points well above the burning temperature of gasoline, which makes the vehicles themselves invulnerable to Molotov cocktails. Only external components such as optical systems, antennas, externally-mounted weapons systems or ventilation ports and openings can be damaged, which can make a tank virtually "blind" or allow burning gasoline to seep into the vehicle, forcing the crew to at least open the hatches or perhaps abandon the vehicle. A molotov cocktail thrown through an open hatch into the crew spaces would, like most other grenades, seriously affect the crew and equipment. However, many modern tanks (such as those operated by the US and NATO) have onboard fire suppression systems. Any fire in a crew space will be automatically extinguished with Halon or another fire suppressant.[clarification needed]

Molotov cocktails used by protesters in Thailand, May 2010.

In Northern Ireland, Molotov cocktails were used by rioting paramilitary groups and protesters against the police, and they are also used to attack houses to burn the house or to intimidate the occupants.[25]

In the Revolutions of 2011 in Cairo, Egypt, pro-government forces attacked protesters in Cairo with Molotovs.[26]


As incendiary devices, Molotov cocktails are illegal to manufacture or possess in many regions. In the United States, Molotov cocktails are considered "destructive devices" under the National Firearms Act and regulated by the ATF.[27]

See also


  1. ^ a b Online Etymology Dictionary: Molotov cocktail. Douglas Harper, 2010.
  2. ^ The Second Book of General Ignorance, Faber and Faber,2010, p.76,ISBN 978-0-571-26965-5
  3. ^ Rottman, Gordon L. (2010). World War II Allied Sabotage Devices and Booby Traps. Osprey Publishing. p. 18. ISBN 9781849081757. 
  4. ^ Thomas, Hugh (1994). The Spanish Civil War. Simon & Schuster, p. 468. ISBN 0671758764
  5. ^ History of the Molotov cocktail
  6. ^ Wintringham, Tom. Against Invasion – the lessons of Spain. Picture Post 15 June 1940 pp. 9–24. (Italics as in the original source).
  7. ^ Coox, Alvin, 1990, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939
  8. ^ *Langdon-Davies, John (June 1940). "The Lessons of Finland". Picture Post. 
  9. ^ Trotter 2003, p. 73.
  10. ^ Anti-tank measures; adoption and production of sticky bomb – WO 185/1, The National Archives
  11. ^ Wintringham 1940, p. 60.
  12. ^ Cocktails A La Molotov – News item about British Home Guard training. (Newsreel). British Pathé. 1 August 1940. Retrieved 9 September 2010. 
  13. ^ Graves 1943, p. 71.
  14. ^ Wintringham, Tom. Against Invasion – the lessons of Spain. Picture Post 15 June 1940 p. 14.
  15. ^ War Office. Military Training Manual No 42, Appendix A: The Anti-Tank Petrol Bomb "Molotov Cocktail". 29 August 1940.
  16. ^ a b c War Office. Military Training Manual No 42, Appendix B: The Self-Igniting Phosphorus Grenade, The AW Grenade. 29 August 1940, p. 25.
  17. ^ Handbook for the Projectors, 2½ inch, Marks I & II September 1941. p. 26.
  18. ^ Northover Projectors – WO 185/23, The National Archives
  19. ^ Macrae 1971, p. 120.
  20. ^ Macrae 1971, pp. 84–85.
  21. ^ Wintringham, Tom. Against Invasion – the lessons of Spain. Picture Post 15 June 1940 pp. 9–24.
  22. ^ Wintringham 1940, p. 59.
  23. ^ Rafal E. Stolarski. "The Production of Arms and Explosive Materials by the Polish Home Army in the Years 1939–1945". Retrieved 30 June 2007. 
  24. ^ O'Kane, Richard (1987). Wahoo: The Patrols of America's Most Famous WWII Submarine. Presidio Press. p. 184. ISBN 0891415726. 
  25. ^ Petrol Bomb Thrown at House
  26. ^
  27. ^ ATF- National Firearms Act handbook

General references

  • Graves, Charles (1943). The Home Guard of Britain. Hutchinson & Co. 
  • Macrae, Stuart (1971). Winston Churchill's Toyshop. Roundwood Press. SBN 900093-22-6. 
  • William R., Trotter. The Winter War, The Russo-Finnish War of 1939–40. 
  • Wintringham, Tom (1940). New Ways of War. Penguin. 


External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Molotov cocktail — n. A home made incendiary device consisting of a bottle filled with gasoline, and a cloth wick. The wick is lighted, and the bottle thrown at a target, such as a vehicle, where it may shatter and spread intense flames over the vehicle, destroying …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Molotov cocktail — (n.) 1940, a term from Russo Finnish War (used and satirically named by the Finns), from Molotov (from Rus. molot hammer ) name taken by Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Skriabin (1890 1986), Soviet minister of foreign affairs 1939 1949 …   Etymology dictionary

  • Molotov cocktail — ► NOUN ▪ a crude incendiary device consisting of a bottle of flammable liquid ignited by means of a wick. ORIGIN named after the Soviet statesman Vyacheslav Molotov, who organized the production of similar grenades in World War II …   English terms dictionary

  • Molotov cocktail — n. [after MOLOTOV V(yacheslav) M(ikhailovich)] Slang a bottle filled with gasoline, etc. and wrapped in a saturated rag or plugged with a wick, then ignited and hurled as a grenade …   English World dictionary

  • Molotov cocktail — index bomb Burton s Legal Thesaurus. William C. Burton. 2006 …   Law dictionary

  • Molotov Cocktail —    The antitank weapon called a Molotov cocktail was not named to honor Molotov. Although how it was so dubbed is a matter of dispute, it is believed to have been named by the Finns during the Russo Finnish War of 1939 1940 as a satirical honor… …   Dictionary of eponyms

  • Molotov cocktail — UK [ˌmɒlətɒf ˈkɒkteɪl] / US [ˈmɑlətɔf ˌkɑkteɪl] / US [ˈmoʊlətɔv ˌkɑkteɪl] noun [countable] Word forms Molotov cocktail : singular Molotov cocktail plural Molotov cocktails a simple bomb consisting of a bottle filled with a liquid that you can set …   English dictionary

  • Molotov cocktail — [[t]mɒ̱lətɒv kɒ̱kteɪl[/t]] Molotov cocktails N COUNT A Molotov cocktail is a simple bomb made by putting petrol and cloth into a bottle. It is exploded by setting fire to the cloth …   English dictionary

  • Molotov Cocktail (magazine) — Molotov Cocktail Editor James Sanders, Ronald Suresh Roberts, Adam Rumball Categories Cultural Political Magazine Frequency quarterly First issue 2007 Company Private Country …   Wikipedia

  • Molotov cocktail — noun Etymology: Vyacheslav M. Molotov Date: 1940 a crude bomb made of a bottle filled with a flammable liquid (as gasoline) and usually fitted with a wick (as a saturated rag) that is ignited just before the bottle is hurled …   New Collegiate Dictionary

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