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

The Molotov cocktail, also known as the petrol bomb, gasoline bomb, Molotov 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 professional-grade grenades. They are primarily intended to set targets ablaze rather than instantly destroy them.

The bombs were derisively named after the then Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, Vyacheslav Molotov, by the Finns during the Winter War.



In its simplest form, a Molotov cocktail is a glass bottle containing petrol fuel usually with 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 paraffin, rather than petrol.

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 vapor are ignited, causing an immediate fireball followed by a raging fire as the remainder of the fuel is consumed.

Other flammable liquids such as wood alcohol and turpentine have been used in place of petrol. Thickening agents such as tar, strips of tire tubing, sugar, animal 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.

The name "Molotov cocktail" is derived from Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, a Russian communist who was the Foreign Minister and Secretary of War of the Soviet Union during World War II. The soldiers of the Finnish Army successfully used Molotov cocktails against Red Army tanks in the two conflicts (Winter War and Continuation War) between Finland and the Soviet Union, and coined the term to mock Molotov. Molotov cocktails were even mass-produced by the Finnish military, bundled with matches to light them. They had already been used in the Spanish Civil War, sometimes propelled by a sling.

Development and use in war

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.

On 30 November 1939, the Soviet Union launched a war against Finland 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 Finnish Army, facing Red Army tanks in what came to be known as the Winter War, borrowed the design of an improvised incendiary device that had been used for the first time[1] in the just-concluded Spanish Civil War (July 1936—February 1939). In that conflict, General Francisco Franco ordered Spanish Nationalists to use the weapon against Soviet T-26 tanks supporting the Spanish Republicans in a failed 1936 assault on Seseña, near Toledo, 80 km south from Madrid.[2][3]

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 the Soviet Union was not dropping bombs but rather delivering food to the starving Finns, the Finns started to call the air bombs Molotov bread baskets.[4] 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. 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.

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

They also saw use during the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, a border conflict ostensibly between Mongolia and Manchukuo that 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 through the use of Molotov cocktails, though Soviet loss records do not support this assessment.[5]

The Polish home army developed a version[6] 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.[7]

A bursting Molotov cocktail

While Molotov cocktails may be a psychologically effective method of disabling tanks and armoured 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". It should be noted that 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 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. But 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. If thrown into a tank, it would, like most other grenades, kill the crew inside. Modern tanks of the U.S. and its NATO allies have onboard fire suppression systems. Should a fire start in an area occupied by the tank crew it will be automatically extinguished with Halon.

In Northern Ireland, Molotov cocktails were used by rioting paramilitary groups against the police, and they are also used to attack houses to burn the house or to intimidate the occupants.[8]


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.[9]

See also


  1. ^ Thomas, Hugh (1994). The Spanish Civil War. Simon & Schuster, p. 468. ISBN 0671758764
  2. ^ José Luis Infiesta. "La Unidad Italiana de Carros-Artillería, los T-26 Soviéticos y la Batalla de Seseña". Retrieved 12 December 2005.  (Spanish)
  3. ^ History of the Molotov cocktail
  4. ^ *Langdon-Davies, John (June 1940). "The Lessons of Finland". Picture Post. 
  5. ^ Coox, Alvin, 1990, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939
  6. ^ Rafal E. Stolarski. "The Production of Arms and Explosive Materials by the Polish Home Army in the Years 1939-1945". Retrieved 30 June 2007. 
  7. ^ O'Kane, Richard (1987). Wahoo: The Patrols of America's Most Famous WWII Submarine. Presidio Press. p. 184. ISBN 0891415726. 
  8. ^ Petrol Bomb Thrown at House
  9. ^ ATF- National Firearms Act handbook

External links


Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Molotov cocktails

  1. Plural form of Molotov cocktail.

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