Molotov cocktail

Molotov cocktail (petrol bomb) is the generic name for a variety of crude incendiary weapons. Commonly associated with irregular military forces and rioters, they are more frequently used for basic arson.



A Molotov cocktail (or petrol bomb) consists of a glass bottle partly filled with flammable liquid, usually petrol (gasoline) or alcohol (generally methanol or ethanol). The mouth of the bottle is stoppered with a cork or other type of airtight bung (rubber, glass, or plastic), and a cloth rag is fixed securely around the mouth. The weapon is used by first soaking the rag in a flammable liquid immediately prior to using it, lighting the rag, and throwing the bottle at the target. The bottle shatters on impact, spilling the flammable liquid over the target, which is then ignited by the burning rag.

Common practice is to throw several unlit, full, bottles to saturate an area, then finish with a lit one. This avoids some of the risk of throwing several lit devices (the enemy sees the flaming bottles approaching and knows which direction to start shooting, possibility of missing, dropping the device after lit, etc)

Many substances may be added to the basic Molotov cocktail to enhance its use as a weapon:

  • Self-inflammatory materials (such as white phosphorus) may be used to guarantee the bottle's explosion as it hits the target surface.
  • Tar, palm oil, laundry detergent, liquid dish soap, or other thickening agents are often added to make the burning fluid stick to the target. Tar also helps to make a thick black smoke. In their wars with the Soviet Union, Finnish soldiers often used hand soap suds and tar for this purpose.
  • Acid may be added to increase both the damage from the explosive device and its ability to penetrate fire-resistant surfaces.
  • Equal parts 30w motor oil and Gasoline, stirred briskly, then add approximately 1/2 total volume in crushed polystyrene (styrofoam) and stirred until a thick liquid is formed. This increases the heat, burning time and stickiness of resulting incendiary.
  • Simple unbleached flour is a wonderful oxidizer, and the addition of a few tablespoons increases heat output.
  • Worth noting: Not all soap flakes and liquid detergents are effective oxidizers, and should be tested prior to assuming they will increase the effectiveness of any device.

Molotov cocktails are similar to napalm bombs in principle. Napalm (short for naphthenic palmitic acids) was originally made by combining flammable naphthalene and petrol with thickening agent palmitic acid, the latter two being the main ingredients of Molotov cocktails.


The name "Molotov cocktail" is derived from Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, a Soviet politician who was the People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs (Foreign Minister) of the Soviet Union. During the buildup to World War II, when Finland refused to allow Stalin to establish military bases on Finnish soil, the Soviets invaded. The poorly-equipped and heavily-outnumbered Finnish Army, facing Red Army tanks in what came to be known as the Winter War, ironically borrowed an improvised explosive device from the Soviet-backed Spanish Republican defenders of Madrid against the Axis-backed Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. To add mockery to this irony, when Molotov claimed in radio broadcasts that the Soviet Union was not dropping bombs, but rather delivering food to the starving Finns, the Finns responded by saluting the advancing tanks with "Molotov cocktails". 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 bottle and fillings. This Finnish use of the hand- or sling-thrown explosive against Soviet tanks was repeated in the subsequent Continuation War. Molotov cocktails were eventually mass-produced by the Finnish military, bundled with matches to light them.

These weapons saw widespread use by all sides in World War II. They were very effective against light tanks, and very bad for enemy morale. The following is a first-hand description of their effects, written during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943:

The well-aimed bottles hit the tank. The flames spread quickly. The blast of the explosion is heard. The machine stands motionless. The crew is burned alive. The other two tanks turn around and withdraw. The Germans who took cover behind them withdraw in panic. We take leave of them with a few well-aimed shots and grenades.
— Eyewitness reporting for the Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization), 19 April 1943

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, members of the Israeli Kibbutz Dgania managed to stop a Syrian tank assault by using Molotov cocktails. They were frequently used against Soviet tanks with great efficiency in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 although it should be noted that Molotov cocktails are much more effective on gasoline engines than the diesel ones.

The reason the weapon has been used against tanks so effectively is that tanks are most vulnerable underneath, and a Molotov cocktail will often blow up the gas tank, destroying the machine (particularly for older tank models). Some Soviet tanks actually had an entry to the gas tank on the side of the vehicle, which could be opened by combatants in close quarters, letting out the highly flammable liquid and making destruction of the tank even easier. Note that these strategies were only effective due to the advantage guerillas had in close quarters; tanks can barely manuever in such conditions and are not able to counter quick-moving enemies armed with incendiary bombs.


As incendiary devices, Molotov cocktails are illegal to manufacture or possess in many regions. Their use against people is typically covered under a variety of charges, including assault, actual or grievous bodily harm, manslaughter, attempted murder, and murder, depending upon their effect and upon local laws. Their use against property is usually covered under arson charges. In the United States, Molotov cocktails are considered "destructive devices" and regulated by the ATF.

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