The phrase “Molotov cocktail” conjures the familiar image of someone – most likely in civilian clothes – ready to throw a bottle stoppered with a flaming cloth. Molotov cocktails are now associated more with protests and riots than military actions. However, the famous cocktail that no one wants to drink originated as an anti-tank weapon around WWII.
But who was this Molotov, and why would he want such a dangerous drink? Of course, the answer is he didn’t, and the name actually came many years after the original cocktail was created.
Playing With Fire: How a Molotov Cocktail Is Made
YouTubers at Ordnance Lab made a video about recreating the “original” Molotov cocktail, but had to edit and repost it after the video was removed by YouTube. The story shows some of the legal problems that come with playing with explosives.
While they are commonly associated with civil unrest, U.S. residents should be wary of making Molotov cocktails. The U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives classifies the incendiary bomb as a destructive device. Anyone without a federal explosives license or permit (FEL/FEP) found possessing a Molotov cocktail can be charged with a federal crime.
That warning out of the way, a Molotov is usually composed of a cocktail of flammable liquids and gelling agents. At its simplest, kerosene in a bottle with a rag fuse serves the purpose. Some have even gone more toward a “biological” variant. For example, Venezuelan protesters made “puputov” cocktails of human excrement.
History indicates that humans have been putting fire in bottles and throwing it at one another since before Rome was an empire. Yet, the Molotov in its modern form is commonly attributed to Spanish soldiers fighting Russian tanks outside Toledo in 1936. Supplied by the Soviets, the Loyalist troops fielded T-26 and T-28 tanks. Francisco Franco’s soldiers, on the other side of the Spanish Civil War, had yet to receive anti-tank weapons from Hitler.
There is no record of what was in the mix, but stories of that battle indicate that the incendiaries were mass-produced. Still, the weapons had detractors, with some claiming as many as 1-in-10 lit the user on fire rather than the enemy.
In modern use, motor oil, rubber cement, and even pieces of foam have been added to create a “Napalm” effect. Yet, little has changed since the Spanish Civil War other than the tactics and the name.
The name came in 1939 when Finnish troops used them against Soviet tanks actually driven by Soviets.
A Cocktail to Go With Molotov’s Breadbaskets
In November 1939, the Soviets invaded neighboring Finland in a bid to bring the former imperial territory to heel. Along with Russian soldiers came Russian bombs. However, then Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov famously claimed they weren’t dropping bombs on Finland, only humanitarian aid. Fins dubbed the Russian cluster bombs as “Molotov’s breadbaskets,” and answered by hurling “Molotov cocktails” at Soviet tanks.
Though the first Molotov cocktails appear to have been improvised devices, their popularity with soldiers soon led to mass production. The Finnish state-owned alcohol monopoly Oy Alkoholiliike Ab is said to have produced more than a half-million during the Winter War. The mass-produced bombs combined tar, gasoline, and ethanol. And instead of the flaming rag wick, the Fin’s Molotov cocktails had storm matches taped to either side.
Before the Molotov cocktail was thrown, the user would light the matches. With the fire source on the outside of the sealed bottle, the cocktails were ostensibly a bit safer to use.
In addition to creating a fire that sticks, the tar or other thickening agents are meant to make thick smoke. This was important, as the real effectiveness of the bomb came when it hit near the tank’s ventilation. The idea was to fill the tank with smoke, either forcing the crew to abandon it or die from asphyxiation.
As such, the effectiveness of the incendiary bombs hinged on careful tactics, the technology of the day, and some serious cajones. Users had to get right on top of the target to ensure they hit where the Molotov would be effective. If the tanks had infantry support, that could mean a suicide mission.
A Self-Igniting Molotov Cocktail
And if throwing a flammable liquid in a glass bottle with flame attached wasn’t crazy enough, Polish soldiers had a self-igniting version. The fuse, external to the bottle, had potassium chlorate, which is a strong oxidizer, and sugar. Concentrated sulphuric acid was added to the internal fuel to react with the potassium chlorate when the glass broke. Sugar, which is commonly used as a fuel by amateur rocket makers, provides a fast-burning fuel to help get things started.
YouTubers at Ordnance Lab recently made an effort to reinvent the self-igniting Molotov cocktail, though they don’t offer the specific recipe.
In that video, the creators make an interesting claim regarding the effectiveness of self-igniting compared Molotovs to ones with wicks. Since the mixture is ignited by a chemical reaction rather than a heat source, they claim better coverage results.
Whether or not the Polish saw that same benefit is unknown.
The Molotov Cocktail in Modern Use
The Molotov cocktail may not be as effective against modern armor as it was against WWII-era Soviet tanks. However, militaries and security forces across the world still consider it a threat to equipment and personnel in asymmetric warfare. Fire, like many weapons, also has a strong psychological effect.
“It has become very important that the troops know how to react when confronted in a situation like this,” Portuguese Army 1st Lt. Joao Costa was quoted as saying in a U.S. Army story on “fire phobia” training.
Ultimately, for every explosive that isn’t nuclear, it is just a matter of combining the trifecta of fire: heat, oxygen, and fuel. Even firing a bullet comes down to that same basic principle. Whether the result is a long-burning fire or a sudden explosion is simply a matter of specific ingredients and ratios.
Finally, it’s uncertain how much training could ever prepare someone for handling being hit by a “puputov.” As to the legality of throwing bottles of excrement, that is likely to be more of a matter for local laws than ATF regulations.