A Molotov cocktail (or petrol bomb) is a crude incendiary weapon which consists of a glass bottle semi-filled with flammable liquid, usually gasoline (petrol) or alcohol (generally methanol or ethanol), the mouth of the bottle is stoppered with a cork or other type of airtight bung (rubber, glass, or plastic), and a cloth rag fixed securely around the mouth. The weapon is used by first soaking the rag in a flammable liquid immediately prior to using it, lighting the rag and throwing the bottle at the target. The bottle shatters on impact, spilling the flammable liquid over the target which is then ignited by the burning rag.
Sometimes, if available, self-inflammatory materials (such as white phosphorus), could also be used to guarantee the bottle's explosion as it hits the target surface. Tar, palm oil or other thickening agents are often added to the composition in order to make the burning fluid stick to the target rather than run off. Finnish soldiers often used hand soap suds as their form of palm oil in their Molotov Cocktails. Modern variations of the Molotov cocktail also contain laundry detergent, liquid dish soap, or crushed up styrofoam cups. The Molotov cocktail is closely related to the same principle of Napalm bombs. Napalm is a contraction of the words naphtha (the flammable part of petrol) and palm oil. Sometimes acid is added to the mix to increase the damaging potential of the liquid, and to increase the chances for it to penetrate fire-resistant surfaces. Molotov cocktails are easy to make and are the standard weaponry of guerrilla warfare and violent rioters.
Despite the crudeness it is tricky for an amateur to make an effective Molotov cocktail. The main failure is in over-filling the bottle. A full bottle will not ignite quickly when it breaks on impact (but has a longer burning potential). For a device to explode rapidly on impact the bottle is only one half to two-thirds full of mixture. One difficulty of mention is not paying attention to carefully wiping the bottle down to remove all traces of the internal flammable liquid from the external parts of the bottle prior to lighting the rag. Another is to mistakenly use the ignition rag to stopper the bottle. Other difficulties come with the proper fixing of the stopper in the mouth of the bottle (it must be airtight to prevent fumes from escaping), the proper fixing of the rag (use metal wire to securely fasten it. Also, a short rag is better), the possibility of mishandling after the rag is ignited, and the use of inappropriate bottles, such as short-necked, wide-mouthed, too fragile or too tough.
The name "Molotov cocktail" is derived from Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Molotov, a Russian communist who was the Foreign Minister and Secretary of War of the Soviet Union during World War II. The soldiers of the Finnish Army successfully used Molotov cocktails against Red Army tanks in the two conflicts (Winter War and Continuation War) between Finland and the Soviet Union, and coined the term to mock Molotov (Soviet planes do not drop bombs but food to help starving Finnish people, he claimed in radio broadcasts).
Molotov cocktails were even mass-produced by the Finnish military, bundled with matches to light them. They had already been used in the Spanish Civil War, sometimes propelled by a sling.
These weapons saw widespread use by all sides in World War II. They were very effective against light tanks, and very bad for enemy morale. The following is a first-hand description of their effects, written during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943:
"The well-aimed bottles hit the tank. The flames spread quickly. The blast of the explosion is heard. The machine stands motionless. The crew is burned alive. The other two tanks turn around and withdraw. The Germans who took cover behind them withdraw in panic. We take leave of them with a few well-aimed shots and grenades. "
- Eyewitness Reporting for the ¯ydowska Organizacja Bojowa (Jewish Fighting Organization), 19 April 1943
During the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, members of the Israeli Kibbutz Dgania managed to stop a Syrian tank assault by using Molotov cocktails.
The increasingly violent protesters began throwing molotov cocktails at the riot police.