The Molotov Cocktail: A Quick History Of The Surprisingly Effective Weapon

Photo by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24th of 2022. Ukrainian soldiers are taking on the Russian troops, but so are a number of Ukrainian civilians. And one of the ways the civilians push back against the opposing army is with Molotov Cocktails. The easy-to-make bombs have been seen on battlefields for nearly 100 years.

Where did the name “Molotov Cocktail” come from?

Vyacheslav Molotov answers questions during a 1945 press conference
Vyacheslav Molotov answers questions during a 1945 press conference (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

The weapon is named in honor of former Russian politician Vyacheslav Molotov. He was one of the signatories of a 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. Soon after the agreement was made, the Russian invaded Finland with the intention of talking over large swaths of the nordic nation. Unfortunately for the Soviets, the Finns gave them a fierce battle and part of this resistance involved Molotov cocktails.

Near the beginning of the invasion, the Russian politician claimed that it was a humanitarian mission and that planes were actually dropping care packages on Finland. The sarcastic Finns began to refer to the Russian bombs as Molotov Bread Baskets. And when they attacked the Russians with homemade bombs of their own, the Finns called them Molotov cocktails.

When was the Molotov Cocktail first used?

Soldier pose during the Spanish Civil War
(Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

While the Finns may have named the weapon during the Winter War, it wasn’t the first recorded use. That actually came during the Spanish Civil War in 1936. The Russians brought tanks to the battle to support the Spanish Republicans in their fight against the Nationalists, led by Francisco Franco.

Tom Wintringham, an Englishman who volunteered to fight for the Republicans, said the petrol bombs were used by both sides. He told Picture Post Magazine that soldiers would fill glass bottles with petrol and top them with a cloth. “The blanket should catch in the tracks or in a cogwheel, 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, which will burn the rubber wheels on which the tank tracks run, set fire to the carburetor, or frizzle the crew.”

Molotov Cocktail, No. 76 Grenades, and World War II

Members of the British Home Guard train in 1940
Members of the British Home Guard train in 1940 (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

After seeing the effectiveness of the weapon during the Winter War, other nations began to wonder how Molotov cocktails could be used in World War II. This was of special importance considering the German’s use of tanks. During a 1940 address British senior military officer General William Ironside said:

“I want to develop this thing they developed in Finland, called the “Molotov cocktail”, a bottle filled with resin, petrol and tar which if thrown on top of a tank will ignite, and if you throw half a dozen or more on it you have them cooked. It is quite an effective thing. If you can use your ingenuity, I give you a picture of a [road] block with two houses close to the block, overlooking it. There are many villages like that. Out of the top windows is the place to drop these things on the tank as it passes the block. It may only stop it for two minutes there, but it will be quite effective.”

The result of the British curiosity was the No. 76 grenade or the SIP (Self-Igniting Phosphorous) grenade. Over 6 million of them were produced and largely issued to the Home Guard to defend against tanks. The efficacy of the weapons against the tanks, though, is mostly in dispute.

Modern Use & Legacy

A Ukrainian volunteer mixes Molotov cocktails
A Ukrainian volunteer mixes Molotov cocktails (Photo by Daniel LEAL / AFP) (Photo by DANIEL LEAL/AFP via Getty Images)

The Molotov cocktail was eventually replaced by other weapons of war, but it is still in use today, mainly by civilians. It can be a great leveler for people who are heavily outgunned. The incendiary projectile is also used for illegal uses. Molotov cocktails are often seen at football riots. They have also been used by terrorists.

Not long after Russian troops invaded Ukraine, Ukrainian citizens began producing large amounts of Molotov cocktails so that they could fight back against the heavily armored invaders. Today, the Molotov cocktail is seen as a symbol of civil unrest and revolution.