- Recent photos from Russia’s war on Ukraine show civilians in cities making Molotov cocktails.
- The Molotov cocktail is one of the most easy-to-make (and extremely dangerous) weapons.
- Even ordinary civilians can use Molotov cocktails to defend themselves from close-in armored assaults.
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.
Molotov cocktails are surprisingly good against armored vehicles. Even the most heavily-armored tanks capable of shrugging off anti-tank shells can suffer serious damage from a Molotov cocktail. All tanks have crew hatches, vision slits, exhaust ports, and other apertures. If a Molotov impacts on or near an open aperture, burning liquid can flow through, causing panic, injuries, and even a fire inside the vehicle. The fire creates smoke, which can turn into a choking hazard for the crew and restrict their vision outside the vehicle. Molotovs are also effective when thrown against the grills of air-cooled engines, causing them to catch fire.
Molotov cocktails are often supplemented with thickeners designed to gel the gasoline or other flammable liquid. This allows the fire to stick in place, especially if thrown against a vertical surface. Thickeners include detergent, egg whites, and dishwasher soap. One thickener commonly used in Ukraine is styrofoam, which dissolves on contact with gasoline to create a viscous, syrupy concoction.
Like all improvised weapons, Molotovs are extremely dangerous. Molotovs do not have arming safeties or a reliable fuse, and once the wick is lit, it’s anyone’s guess how long it will take for the contents of the bottle to catch fire. As a consequence, Molotov cocktails should be thrown immediately after being lit. As for throwing, Molotovs should not be tossed overhead: the weight of the liquid can push the wick out, pouring flaming gasoline on anyone underneath.
A Molotov cocktail is not as effective as Ukraine’s own Stugna anti-tank missiles, American-supplied Javelin missiles, or British NLAW anti-tank rockets, all of which are making a substantial dent in Russia’s armored force. But the danger posed by the improvised weapons means an ordinary person with an empty vodka bottle, a dollar’s worth of gasoline, and a match can disable a multi-million dollar tank or armored fighting vehicle. This simplicity means the Molotov will likely persist as a weapon of last resort well into the 21st century—and even beyond.