Science, Tech, Math › Science What Is a Molotov Cocktail? Definition and Explanation Share Flipboard Email Print Flickr Vision / Getty Images Science Chemistry Physical Chemistry Basics Chemical Laws Molecules Periodic Table Projects & Experiments Scientific Method Biochemistry Medical Chemistry Chemistry In Everyday Life Famous Chemists Activities for Kids Abbreviations & Acronyms Biology Physics Geology Astronomy Weather & Climate By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Chemistry Expert Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences, University of Tennessee at Knoxville B.A., Physics and Mathematics, Hastings College Dr. Helmenstine holds a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences and is a science writer, educator, and consultant. She has taught science courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels. our editorial process Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. Updated June 04, 2020 A Molotov cocktail is a simple type of improvised incendiary device. A Molotov cocktail is also known as a petrol bomb, alcohol bomb, bottle bomb, poor man's grenade, or simply Molotov. The simplest form of the device consists of a stoppered bottle filled with a combustible liquid, such as gasoline or high-proof alcohol, with a fuel-soaked rag stuffed in the neck of the bottle. The stopper separates the fuel from the part of the rag that acts as a fuse. To use a Molotov cocktail, the rag is ignited and the bottle is thrown against a vehicle or fortification. The bottle breaks, spraying fuel into the air. The vapor and droplets are ignited by the flame, producing a fireball and then a burning fire, which consumes the remainder of the fuel. Molotov Ingredients The key ingredients are a bottle that shatters on impact and a fuel that catches fire and spreads when the bottle breaks. While gasoline and alcohol are the traditional fuels, other flammable liquids are effective, including diesel, turpentine, and jet fuel. All alcohols work, including ethanol, methanol, and isopropanol. Sometimes detergent, motor oil, polystyrene foam, or rubber cement are added to make the mixture stick better to the target or cause the burning liquid to release thick smoke. For the wick, natural fibers, such as cotton or wool, work better than synthetics (nylon, rayon, etc.) because synthetic fibers typically melt. Origin of the Molotov Cocktail The Molotov cocktail traces its origins to an improvised incendiary device that was used in the 1936 to 1939 Spanish Civil War in which General Francisco Franco had Spanish Nationalists use the weapons against Soviet T-26 tanks. In World War II, the Finnish used the weapons against Soviet tanks. Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet People's Commissar for Foreign Affairs claimed in radio broadcasts that the Soviet Union was delivering food to the starving Finns rather than dropping bombs on them. The Finns started referring to the air bombs as Molotov bread baskets and to the incendiary weapons, they used against the Soviet tanks as Molotov cocktails. Revisions to the Molotov Cocktail Throwing a flaming bottle of fuel is inherently dangerous, so modifications were made to the Molotov cocktail. The Alko corporation mass-produced Molotov cocktails. These devices consisted of 750 ml glass bottles that contained a mixture of gasoline, ethanol, and tar. The sealed bottles were bundled with a pair of pyrotechnic storm matches, one on either side of the bottle. One or both of the matches were lit before the device was thrown, either by hand or using a sling. The matches were safer and more reliable than the fuel-soaked cloth fuses. The tar thickened the fuel mixture so that the fuel would adhere to its target and so the fire would produce a lot of smoke. Any flammable liquid could be used as the fuel. Other thickening agents included dish soap, egg whites, sugar, blood, and motor oil. The Polish army developed a mixture of sulfuric acid, sugar, and potassium chlorate that ignited upon impact, thus eliminating the need for a lit fuse. Uses of Molotov Cocktails The purpose of a Molotov is to set a target on fire. The incendiaries have been used by regular soldiers in the absence of conventional weapons, but more often they are used by terrorists, protesters, rioters, and street criminals. While effective at instilling fear in targets, Molotov cocktails present a significant risk to the person using them.