Due to the relative ease of production, Molotov cocktails have been used by street criminals, rioters, criminal gangs, urban guerrillas, terrorists, irregular soldiers, or even regular soldiers short on equivalent military-issue weapons. They are primarily intended to ignite rather than completely destroy targets, and are often used just as much to cause chaos as to actually do damage, sometimes being used as weapons during riots and mass protest.
The name “Molotov cocktail” was coined by the Finns during the Winter War, called in Finnish: polttopullo or Molotovin koktaili. The name was a pejorative reference to Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, who was one of the architects of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact signed in late August 1939. The pact with Nazi Germany, which established that Germany would not intervene in the war, was widely mocked by the Finns (who had hoped to be supported by the Nazis if they were invaded by the Soviets).
Also mocked was much of the propaganda Molotov produced during the Winter War, including a declaration on Soviet state radio that bombing missions over Finland were actually airborne humanitarian food deliveries for their starving neighbours.
The Finns sarcastically dubbed the Soviet cluster bombs “Molotov bread baskets” in reference to Molotov’s propaganda broadcasts. When the hand-held bottle firebomb was developed to attack Soviet tanks, the Finns called it the “Molotov cocktail”, as “a drink to go with the food”.
A Molotov cocktail is a breakable glass bottle containing a flammable substance such as petrol, alcohol, or a napalm-like mixture, with some motor oil added, and usually a source of ignition such as a burning cloth wick held in place by the bottle’s stopper. The wick is usually soaked in alcohol or kerosene, rather than petrol.
In action, the wick is lit and the bottle hurled at a target such as a vehicle or fortification. When the bottle smashes on impact, the ensuing cloud of fuel droplets and vapour is ignited by the attached wick, causing an immediate fireball followed by spreading flames as the remainder of the fuel is consumed.
Other flammable liquids such as diesel fuel, methanol, turpentine, jet fuel, and isopropyl alcohol have been used in place of, or combined with petrol. Thickening agents such as solvents, foam polystyrene, baking soda, petroleum jelly, tar, strips of tyre tubing, nitrocellulose, XPS foam, motor oil, rubber cement, detergent and dish soap have been added to help the burning liquid adhere to the target and create clouds of thick, choking smoke.
In addition, toxic substances are also known to be added to the mixture, to create a suffocating or poisonous gas on the resulting explosion, effectively turning the Molotov cocktail into a makeshift chemical weapon. These include bleach, chlorine, various strong acids, pesticides, among others.