From the Winter War to the Soviet invasion of Hungary to the present day, the homemade "bottle bomb" known as the Molotov cocktail has long been a weapon of choice for guerrillas and revolutionaries around the world.
When the Soviet Union invaded Hungary in 1956, one member of Hungary’s besieged government confidently told The New York Times: “As long as there are old bottles and gasoline supplies and rags to serve for fuses, no Russian tank will be safe in the streets.” The official was talking about Molotov cocktails, which the Hungarians would use to destroy about 400 of the invading Soviet tanks before the rebellion was quelled. So where did this crude — but powerful — incendiary weapon come from?
Though the Molotov cocktail is most closely linked to the Winter War, when the Soviet Union invaded Finland in 1939 and the Finns fought back with “bottle bombs,” it has a longer history. And the weapon, which consists of a bottle filled with a flammable liquid and fitted with a wick for ignition, has been used to great effect in wars, revolutions, and riots ever since.
This is the explosive history of the Molotov cocktail.
The Rise Of The “Poor Man’s Grenade”
The Molotov cocktail was officially named during the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland, which took place between 1939 and 1940. But bottle bombs first emerged over a decade before that conflict started.
The first documented use of such weapons came in 1922. Then, the paramilitary organization Irish Republican Army (IRA) used bottles filled with petrol and paraffin as weapons.
“It consists of a bottle containing a mixture — one half petrol, one half paraffin, surrounded by a rubber band which holds in place a piece of fuse (4 sec) at either end of which is a safety match head,” one member explained to his superiors, according to The Conversation. “One end of the fuse is lighted and by the time the bottle strikes the objective the other end ignites causing the mixture to go on fire.”
Because some were concerned that the weapons would be ineffective against armored cars, these petrol bombs were not heavily relied upon by the IRA. But a similar weapon would soon reemerge in the next decade with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, which took place from 1936 to 1939.
During the war, Nationalist troops loyal to Francisco Franco used bottle bombs against Republican forces to great and devastating effect.
The Republicans had Soviet-supplied tanks fueled with gasoline, which turned out to be vulnerable when hit with a well-aimed projectile. According to National Geographic, a British brigadier general witnessed one such attack, in which these makeshift weapons destroyed nine tanks.
But it wasn’t until a different conflict broke out that these simple but powerful projectiles were finally given a name: Molotov cocktails.
How The Molotov Cocktail Got Its Name
On November 30, 1939, the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland began after the Soviets invaded the neighboring country.
During the conflict, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov controversially referred to cluster bombs dropped on Finland as “food parcels” for the Finns. According to Live Science, Molotov even claimed on state radio that his countrymen were helping starving Finns with the humanitarian supplies.
The Finns mockingly called these cluster bombs “Molotov’s bread baskets” or “Molotov picnic baskets.” Determined to fight back against the Soviets, they declared that they would come up with a drink to pair with Molotov’s so-called food parcels: Molotovin koktaili, or Molotov cocktails.
Like “bottle bombs” used by the Irish and the Spanish, Finnish Molotov cocktails were made with a bottle, a flammable liquid like gasoline or alcohol, a wick like a cloth, and matches. The Finns also sometimes added tar, which could produce copious amounts of smoke.
American historian William R. Trotter described these weapons in his book Frozen Hell (2000). He explained that the Finns realized that the most effective bottle bombs were made using one-liter vodka bottles produced at the State Liquor Factory, in Rajamäki, Finland. As a result, thousands of bottles were produced there specifically to be made into weapons.
“Working brutally long hours, 87 women and five men hand-crafted 542,194 Molotov cocktails,” Trotter wrote, according to the Washington Post. Incredibly, Trotter explained, “their product is credited with destroying approximately 350 Soviet tanks and other vehicles.”
He also wrote: “The Finnish version was… powerful, consisting of a blend of gasoline, kerosene, tar, and chloride of potassium, ignited not by a dishrag but by an ampul of sulfuric acid taped to the bottle’s neck.”
Despite this spirited warfare, the Soviets eventually triumphed over the Finns in March 1940, ending the conflict with a peace treaty between the two countries. But the Molotov cocktail would soon be adopted elsewhere.
How Molotov Cocktails Have Been Used Around The World
Shortly after the Finns perfected the Molotov cocktail, the British also began to plan to use this makeshift weapon. In 1940, as the country braced itself for a potential Nazi invasion, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War international brigades named Tom Wintringham published a guide for Brits who were interested in making Molotov cocktails in a magazine called Picture Post.
“Wait for your tank,” Wintringham wrote. “When near enough, your pal lights [the] petrol-soaked corner of the blanket. Throw the bottle and blanket as soon as this corner is flaring. (You cannot throw it far.) See that it drops in front of the tank. The blanket should catch in the tracks or in a cog-wheel, or wind itself round an axle. The bottle will smash, but the petrol should soak the blanket well enough to make a really healthy fire.”
He added: “Do not play with these things. They are highly dangerous.”
National Geographic reports that British men too old to fight were also trained to use “cocktails à la Molotov” and that the U.K. produced about 6 million weapons called “model 76 grenades.” These were effectively formalized versions of the weapon, meant to help citizens resist invaders.
American troops also sought to use Molotov cocktails during World War II. According to the Washington Post, a 1943 U.S. Army training film entitled “Crack That Tank” even offered a demonstration. “Light the rag, heave the bottle so it busts on top of the tank and this is what you get,” the film’s narrator explained. “The burning gas pours through cracks and crevices in the tank. Nine times out of 10, it’ll find oil or grease or more gas inside.”
Molotov cocktails have since been adopted by people across the world, especially revolutionaries, freedom fighters, militants, rioters, and people who are resisting invasion. Hungarians used the weapons against the Soviets in 1956, as did French protestors against their government in 1968. These bottle bombs were also used during the 1992 L.A. riots and, most recently, by combatants in Ukraine resisting the Russian invasion of 2022.
It’s easy to see why. Molotov cocktails are easy to make. They’re surprisingly powerful. And they offer besieged people, from the Irish, to the Finns, to the Ukrainians, a fighting chance against a formidable enemy.
After reading about the history of the Molotov cocktail, see how the Tommy gun became the weapon of choice for American gangsters during the 1920s. Or, discover the strange story of the Panjandrum, the disastrous experimental World War II weapon invented by the British.