Best Served on Fire: The Twisted History of the Molotov co*cktail - Historic Mysteries (2024)

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The Molotov co*cktail is one of the all-time greats of improvised weaponry. A hand-thrown incendiary weapon, generally made by filling a glass bottle or jar (any frangible container would work, but glass is traditionally used) with flammable substances, its effectiveness as a tool of protest cannot be overstated.

The fuse is typically a cloth wick from fabric or old rags soaked in gasoline and then sealed with a cork or lid. The fuse is then lit on fire, and someone throws the device, which will shatter upon impact with the ground, buildings, tanks, etc. The breaking of the bottle causes the flammable liquid to ignite, resulting in fires.

Molotov co*cktails are easy to make, and they are used by rioters, terrorists, criminals, “urban guerrillas,” and even out-of-control sports fans when their team doesn’t win. The military also uses Molotov co*cktails in the event of a shortage of military-issued weapons in the field.

While these devices are considered improvised, large numbers of Molotov co*cktails are made in advance of combat. The most recent example of the use of Molotov co*cktails was the use of them by volunteer units during the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Not a co*cktail, Then?

The first known use of the Molotov co*cktail as we know it today was in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War. Yes, although this bomb is commonly known as the Molotov co*cktail, it did not originate in Russia, nor did the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov invent the co*cktail that shares his name.

The Molotov co*cktail has gone by other names such as petrol bomb, bottle bomb, burn bottle, and “the poor man’s grenade”. During the Spanish Civil War, these petrol bombs and fire bottles were thrown by soldiers of the Spanish National forces used against Soviet T-26 tanks near the city of Toledo.

At this point it didn’t have a title: the Molotov co*cktail finally got its name during the Winter War between the Soviets and Finland in 1939. During this Winter War, the Soviet Union and foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov produced propaganda to cover up what the Red Army was doing in Finland.

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On state radio, Molotov lied and told the public that the planes dropping incendiary bombs onto the country were not bombs at all. The Soviet Union was performing “airborne humanitarian food deliveries” for their “starving” neighbors…

The Finns started sarcastically calling the cluster bombs that the Soviet Union would drop “Molotov bread baskets.” The Finns were not subtle about their feelings towards Molotov, and when bottle bombs were created to destroy Soviet tanks, the Finns called the bomb the “Molotov co*cktail” because it was “a drink for Molotov to go with his food parcels.”

While the Finns gave the Molotov co*cktail its name, the Finish military does not call them this themselves. They refer to them as “burn bottles” or polttopullo.

Molotov co*cktails are seen as legitimate weapons by militaries across the globe. The United States had even classified the Molotov co*cktail as a frangible grenade and created the Frangible Grenade M1, which was a series of Molotov co*cktail-inspired grenades that were used in 1942. These Molotov co*cktail-like devices were factory produced and used in World War II because the US entered the war late and had low stocks of arms and munitions.

Straightforward and Devastating

What makes Molotov co*cktails such popular devices is that they are so easy to make. Unlike other kinds of homemade bombs, a Molotov co*cktail is stable; it won’t accidentally explode during the process of making it.

There is no specific flammable liquid that must be used to create a Molotov co*cktail; anything that will combust will do. Molotov co*cktails can be made using gas or diesel fuel (the popular method), acetone, rubbing alcohol, jet fuel, turpentine, and methanol. These other fluids can also be added to a co*cktail with petrol as well for a little extra spice.

While a fire bomb on its own can do some damage, in order to really maximize the flames, thickening agents are sometimes added to the contents of the bottle. Tar, petroleum jelly, motor oil, rubber cement, and the infamously flammable compound nitrocellulose can be used to make the burning liquid adhesive, so it is harder to remove or to put out.

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Civilians have used Molotov co*cktails during major conflicts and riots. During the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in response to the officers who beat Rodney King being acquitted of their crimes, Molotov co*cktails were thrown at the police and riot squad.

Another similar situation of inappropriate, excessive force by police was the fatal shooting of Michel Brown, which sparked what was known as the Ferguson riots in 2014. Some protestors created and used Molotov co*cktails against the police.

During the 2020 George Floyd protests in the US, looters and rioters used Molotov co*cktails to cause more chaos or aid in robberies. Buses and cars were attacked with Molotov co*cktails during the government protests in Bangladesh in 2014, which resulted in the deaths of several innocent people.

The problem with Molotov co*cktails and civilians is that because they are so easy to make and can be produced in bulk, they can show up in any protest or riot that occurs. Molotov co*cktails are dangerous and can cause large amounts of damage.

With the gun crisis that exists in the United States, the addition of Molotov co*cktails to attacks could make a tragedy even worse. Dealing with fire, an explosion, broken glass as well as an active shooter increases the amount of chaos which puts more innocent victims’ lives at risk.

The Law

Because Molotov co*cktails are considered incendiary devices, they are illegal to possess and manufacture in many countries. In the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) classifies Molotov co*cktails as “destructive devices,” which means they are regulated under the National Firearms Act.

While anyone can make a Molotov co*cktail, it doesn’t mean it is okay to create one. Producing or being in possession of Molotov co*cktails can put you in jail for a very long time.

Top Image: Molotov co*cktails are an extremely effective improvised weapon. Source: Eneas De Troya / CC BY 2.0.

By Lauren Dillon


Best Served on Fire: The Twisted History of the Molotov co*cktail - Historic Mysteries (4)

Lauren Dillon

Lauren Dillon is a freelance writer with experience working in museums, historical societies, and archives. She earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Russian & Eastern European Studies in 2017 from Florida State University. She went on to earn her Master’s Degree in Museum Studies in 2019 from the University of San Francisco. She loves history, true crime, mythology, and anything strange and unusual. Her academic background has inspired her to share the parts of history not in most textbooks. She enjoys playing the clarinet, taking ballet classes, textile art, and listening to an unhealthy amount of true crime podcasts. Read More


Best Served on Fire: The Twisted History of the Molotov co*cktail - Historic Mysteries (2024)


Is Molotov a Russian word? ›

Skryabin took the pseudonym "Molotov", derived from the Russian word molot (sledge hammer) since he believed that the name had an "industrial" and "proletarian" ring to it. He was arrested in 1909 and spent two years in exile in Vologda. In 1911, he enrolled at St. Petersburg Polytechnic Institute.

What was the original Finnish Molotov co*cktail? ›

A 1939 Finnish technical manual described the Molotov co*cktail as comprising a half-litre liquor bottle with a screw cap, filled with a mixture of gasoline and ethanol, with some tar being added to create smoke. Once the bottle was filled with the liquid, the screw cap was closed and sealed with insulating tape.

What is the Molotov co*cktail incendiary device? ›

A Molotov co*cktail (among several other names – see § Etymology) is a hand-thrown incendiary weapon consisting of a frangible container filled with flammable substances and equipped with a fuse (typically a glass bottle filled with flammable liquids sealed with a cloth wick).

What is the meaning of Molotov? ›

: a crude bomb made of a bottle filled with a flammable liquid (such as gasoline) and usually fitted with a wick (such as a saturated rag) that is ignited just before the bottle is hurled.

What is the English translation of Molotov? ›

A petrol bomb is a simple bomb consisting of a bottle full of petrol with a cloth in it that is lit just before the bottle is thrown.

Is there a co*cktail called Molotov? ›

Molotov co*cktail Bottled co*cktail

Try this explosive mix of 42 Below Vodka, Parfait d'Amour liqueur, and black sambuca and lemon juice. Guaranteed to make your tastebuds go boom.

What does the Molotov co*cktail tattoo mean? ›

Molotov tattoos symbolize rebellion and resistance. They are often associated with political activism or the desire to fight against oppressive systems. The image of a Molotov co*cktail, a homemade explosive device, represents anarchy and the willingness to use direct action to bring about change.

Are Molotov co*cktails allowed in war? ›

No treaty bans the weapon, as such. But rules specific to incendiary weapons regulate its use. At the same time, the cardinal principles of distinction and unnecessary suffering clearly limit use of the Molotov co*cktail in important respects.

Is Molotov better than incendiary? ›

Although reason is unknown, the Incendiary Grenade has less armor penetration then the Molotov, which means the Molotov can kill an armored opponents faster then the Incendiary Grenade, but still costs $200 less.

What is the story of Molotov? ›

When Soviet forces attacked Finland in 1939, Vyacheslav Mikhaylovich Molotov, Stalin's foreign minister, claimed the warplanes were airlifting food to the country, not dropping bombs. The Finns responded by dubbing the bombs “Molotov's bread baskets” and offered to provide drinks—or co*cktails—to go with them.

Is a Molotov co*cktail a grenade? ›

Finnish 'Molotov co*cktail' incendiary grenade associated with the Russo-Finnish War of 1939-1940. This type of grenade (much imitated and used in many subsequent conflicts) was originally named after Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, whom the Finns held to be in large measure responsible for the War.

Why did VM Molotov come up with the Molotov? ›

He was a Russian politician and diplomat. We should know that he came up with the Molotov plan to prevent eastern European countries from taking Marshall Plan money or we can say that he wanted to aid eastern Europe and increase soviet influence.

What is a synonym for Molotov? ›

a crude incendiary bomb made of a bottle filled with flammable liquid and fitted with a rag wick. synonyms: gasoline bomb, petrol bomb.

Is Molotov a napalm? ›

Molotov co*cktails are similar to napalm bombs in principle. Napalm was originally made by combining flammable naphthalene and petrol with a thickening agent palmitic acid. The latter two are the main ingredients of Molotov co*cktails.

Who were Stalin's closest allies? ›

An unofficial "inner circle" of Stalin's closest associates included Lavrentiy Beria, Nikolai Bulganin, Kliment Voroshilov, Lazar Kaganovich, Georgy Malenkov, Mikhail Pervukhin, Maksim Saburov, and Nikita Khrushchev.


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