With the ongoing war in Ukraine, Molotov cocktails often make headlines around the world. This simple anti-tank weapon has been a symbol of resistance against aggression for quite some time now. They also hold a reputation for enabling civil disobedience and arson. But what exactly are they, how do they work, and most importantly, how did they get their name?
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What is a Molotov cocktail?
When armored vehicles roll through the neighborhood looking all unfriendly, there isn’t much that the average man or woman can do to turn them back. But necessity is the mother of invention, and not even tanks are safe from a determined defender. Molotov cocktails are incendiary weapons — firebombs — built using cheap, simple, and widely-available domestic goods that can disable armored vehicles.
In essence, Molotov cocktails are made from a brittle container, generally glass beverage bottles, filled with a flammable liquid such as gasoline or alcohol, and something to act as a wick or fuse — textiles work best. For added effectiveness, a thickening agent can be mixed in with the flammable substance. For bottles, the fuse is secured inside the neck so that it rests in the liquid and soak it up, to allow it to maintain a flame for longer. The fuse also acts as a stopper to prevent the liquid from spilling out of the container.
Sometimes, stones or sand are put inside the bottle as well to make them heavier and give them a better chance to break through glass windows or panes. Some thickeners used throughout history include styrofoam, baking soda, petroleum jelly, tar, strips of tire tubing, nitrocellulose, motor oil, rubber cement, detergent, and dish soap.
How do they work?
The impact of a Molotov cocktail does very little damage, especially against hardened surfaces such as armor plates on military vehicles. A simple sheet of metal will be able to stop one such cocktail and remain unharmed and even flammable materials such as wooden floors and tarps do well against the impact itself. What makes Molotov cocktails dangerous is what happens after the bottle hits a surface.
On impact, the container breaks, spilling flammable liquid in an area close to where the cocktail struck. The flame of the wick ignites the material, setting the area on fire. On a level surface, the initial conflagration created by the most common size of Molotov cocktails — those made in beer bottles — spreads over roughly 1 square meter (around 3 sq ft). The damage Molotov cocktails inflict is caused by these flames, which very often start much larger fires by spreading to flammable materials around the area of impact. In the case of armored vehicles, these materials include electrical wiring, plastic elements, rubber seals, tubing, or bands, air filters, upholstery, and the crew themselves, among many other elements. With enough heat even ammunition can ignite, leading to an extremely powerful detonation.
Beyond the actual damage fires cause inside a vehicle, Molotov cocktails are fearsome psychological weapons. Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, enjoys the thought of burning to death, as these Police officers from Hong Kong emphatically showed in 2020:
If the burning liquids of one such cocktail find their way into the fighting compartment (where the crew is housed), or if it starts a large enough fire, crews are likely to exit the vehicle altogether in order to escape the flames. This is a more likely response in less experienced crews, but even veterans will cut and run if they cannot extinguish the fire. The fear of fire is a very primal and powerful reaction in all living animals. Even if humans can work around it pretty well, a close and unexpected burst of flames will send even hardened veterans into a panic.
Furthermore, the smoke caused by burning materials inside the fighting compartment can also force a crew to bail out of the vehicle.
How best to use them
A weapon is only as good as the knowledge its wielder has of when and how to use it. Molotov cocktails are among those whose effectiveness is most affected by the user’s finesse and foresight. The following video shows what is perhaps the worst way to use a Molotov cocktail (don’t try this at home!).
Did the soldier driving that truck see life flash before his eyes? Definitely. But they were not actually harmed. In the next video, we’ll see a much better outcome achieved by students in Hong Kong during the 2020 siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University:
Now, credit where credit is due; our brave Ukrainian from earlier was a single soul taking on a whole military convoy moving at speed. The odds were stacked heavily against them. Here, we see multiple combatants taking on a slow-moving vehicle from prepared, fortified positions. The video also shows how defenders working together to throw multiple Molotovs can have a much greater stopping power than a single combatant.
Some of the best recorded examples of civil disobedience powered by the Molotov come from 2013-2014 Ukraine, during the Euromaidan / Maidan Uprising, when fortified protesters fought off military, armored vehicles using masses of these firebombs with great success.
Or, from another angle:
Molotov cocktails are, practically speaking, improvised weapons. There is only so much they can do against an experienced crew driving a prepared vehicle. If the burning liquids don’t reach the fighting compartment or internal systems of a vehicle, the machine and crew are left virtually unharmed. Surprise and ambush are the key elements of a successful Molotov attack, as is separating fighting vehicles from the infantry that is supporting them to create an opening for the attack. Urban areas provide the ideal context for such operations.
History and name
As a primarily anti-tank weapon, Molotov cocktails first saw use after tanks established themselves on the battlefield.
The first recorded use of these weapons was during the Spanish Civil War (July 1936 — April 1939) by Spanish Republicans. Bereft of anti-tank weapons, firebombs were used to give soldiers a way to deal with Russian-made tanks that were fighting in support of the Nationalists. These firebombs were most commonly made using jars and long strips of cloth and were meant to entangle tank wheels and tracks and burn away the rubber elements on these, immobilizing the vehicles. However, there is photographic evidence from this conflict to show that the bombs were used in a more conventional fashion as well, to ignite the engine of tanks.
In regards to the name, it seems to be a legacy of the Winter War (30 November 1939 – 13 March 1940), which saw the Soviet Union attempting to invade Finland. At the time, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov would insist that the bombers sent to blow Finland to smithereens were, in fact, parachuting food supplies for their starving neighbors — because nothing goes together quite as well as war and propaganda.
The Finns would thus jokingly refer to Russian bombs as “Molotov’s bread baskets”. In turn, they would serve advancing Russian tanks “Molotov cocktails” to go with the ‘food’.
Alcohol factories around the country shifted production from booze to Molotovs and, one of the most important local adaptations of the weapon was the inclusion of two pyrotechnic storm matches on each bottle. This would make it easier for soldiers to light up and use the weapon in Finland’s freezing, perpetually-wet landscapes.
Where does it go from here?
The single largest advantages of the Molotov cocktail are its supreme simplicity, ease of manufacture, speed of manufacture, and ease of use. That being said, there have been attempts to upgrade on the trusty design of gas-in-bottle, or on the delivery method, to make the Molotov even more deadly.
For the latter, reports from Ukraine show that drones are being refitted to drop Molotov cocktails directly on top of Russian tanks. This merger of high- and low-tech is a match made in heaven for the Molotov, taking away the risk of delivering the weapon (a regular person can’t throw one such bottle very far, putting them at risk of discovery and return fire).
On the other end, militaries around the world have tried to bring this weapon up to scratch with modern standards. Efforts to improve on the makeshift Molotov focused mainly on including self-igniting elements to the weapon, increasing safety for the user, improving on the viscosity, stickiness, and temperatures released by the weapons, as well as improving on portability.
Quite frankly, however, there are better anti-tank weapons out there. Militaries have huge industrial complexes to fall back to, and these are better used to produce rockets or cannons instead of Molotovs, as they are simply more effective at the job. Plus, regular Joes can make Molotovs in their kitchen or backyard, but a bazooka? Not so much.
As such, factory-built Molotovs are very rarely used. That being said, they are cheap and easy to make, and some countries maintain a stock of such firebombs for use by their national guard units.
Needless to say, the situation in Ukraine right now is pretty special, and so the government is encouraging people and businesses to churn out these fiery brews to be used in the defense of the country. In countries not currently gripped by war, making, owning, or using Molotov cocktails is very definitely illegal and will land you in a lot of trouble.
What probably won’t land you in as much trouble, but still useful in a pinch in war or if your government is highly oppressive, are the Venezuelan ‘Puputov’, or ‘Poo-Poo-Tov’, cocktail. The name is a wordplay on ‘Molotov cocktail’, and ‘poo-poo’; I leave it to your energetic imagination to determine what one such Puputov looks like.
If civil unrest is your game but you’re not really willing to ruin anyone’s day about it, paint Molotovs — “painmotovs”? That doesn’t sound right — are another non-lethal but relatively effective weapon protesters have used in the past to limit the effectiveness of riot police. These are meant to cover the officers’ visors with pain to reduce their visibility and force them to disengage.