How the Molotov Cocktail Got Its Name

How the Molotov Cocktail Got Its Name

A Palestinian demonstrator throws a petrol bomb towards Israeli security forces during clashes in the West Bank city of Hebron on April 4, 2013.

SourceMarco Longari/Getty

Why you should care

Because you might need to make one someday.

Alexander Dubček’s slate of liberalizations inspired the young while laying a framework for splitting Czechoslovakia in two. They also pissed off the U.S.S.R., and in 1968 Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, where they were met with a wave of rebellion. Dubček preached nonviolence, but angry youths ignored him, moving to protect the city’s radio center, the communication hub of the resistance. As the tanks opened fire, the protesters did what civilians can when faced with a tank: They threw Molotov cocktails.

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Nationalist troops in the Spanish Civil War, 1936.

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The first recorded use of these bottle bombs — glass flasks filled with gas, tar or motor oil and then set on fire — was as an anti-tank weapon during the mid-1930s Spanish Civil War, when Gen. Francisco Franco’s troops were battling Soviet-backed government forces for control of Madrid. They didn’t get their catchy name until a few years later, when, in 1939, Russian radio tried to disguise air strikes on Finland. Minister of Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov assured listeners that Russia was bombarding Finland with humanitarian aid only, not 7-foot cylinders containing scores of incendiary bombs. The Finns dubbed the bombs “Molotov’s picnic baskets,” and promised they’d respond with a “Molotov cocktail.” When Soviet tanks arrived, they were met by half a million improvised bottle bombs. The hand-held incendiaries reportedly destroyed hundreds of the armored vehicles. Though the Finns fought hard — during the three-month conflict, five times as many Russian soldiers perished as Finnish ones — they eventually surrendered. But the Molotov, and its nickname, survived.

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Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov.

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[I]t’s an improvised bomb, so you use whatever you can.

Christiane Grieb

“It is the weapon of the poor man,” explains military and legal expert Christiane Grieb. “There is also no recipe to it — it’s an improvised bomb, so you use whatever you can.” Molotov cocktails swiftly gained popularity as a guerrilla weapon. Che Guevara called them “an arm of extraordinary value” in Guerrilla Warfare, which became a manual for would-be revolutionaries worldwide. Martin Luther King Jr., meanwhile, preached against their use in the 1960s. When Ukraine’s uprising broke out in 2014, demonstrators threw Molotovs — as did rioters in Ferguson, Missouri, that same year. Molotov cocktails have been utilized by those seeking to intimidate and terrorize: The night of Sept. 11, 2001, a Sikh temple in Bensonhurst, Ohio, caught fire when three Molotovs were launched through a window. They’ve also been used by conventional armies — British soldiers, for example, dubbed them “bottle bombs.”

Experimentation taught that gasoline in a bottle wasn’t enough, and that adding diesel or motor oil effectively stuck the flames to the targets and caused more damage. The British army took the concept even further, filling bottles with phosphorus to target the humans inside the tanks. Trouble was, phosphorus was difficult to transport, and the practice caused a lot of accidents for the soldiers who were hurling the bombs. British forces came up with “sticky bombs,” which mimicked the Molotov’s habit of adhering to a tank even while burning. That stickiness proved to be a double-edged sword, though: The grenade could also stick to the poor soul trying to throw it.

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Anti-government protesters throw Molotov cocktails at police during January 2014 clashes in Kiev, Ukraine.

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Long before Molotov’s “picnic baskets,” small firebombs had been used in wars and revolutions for centuries. Ancient soldiers spoke of Greek fire — the recipe has been lost to the ages — an incendiary weapon whose fire kept burning even on water. In Paris, there’s the legend of les pétroleuses, working-class women who stalked the city during the final days of the 1871 Paris Commune, wielding bottles of gasoline and randomly setting buildings on fire. Though it’s likely that les pétroleuses didn’t actually exist, that didn’t stop soldiers and mobs of citizens worked up by the myth from reportedly executing any woman caught holding an empty milk jug. What’s now known as a Molotov cocktail has a long-standing association with an angry populace — if only because those who can afford guns and tanks use guns and tanks.

Molotovs, on the other hand, are made with things that working-class people have on hand. And particularly what working-class women have on hand. The secret ingredient for the most famous of all improvised weapons? A tampon. Sure, some anarchists might shy away from feminizing their bombs, but modern recipes tend to bow to practicality and include feminine hygiene products in the formula. Tampons are soaked in gas and then taped or rubber-banded to a bottle filled with gasoline and motor oil. Light the string — aka the fuse — throw and kaboom!

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