The “insurgent” (pathetic press term) or “terrorist” (the real term) threw a Molotov cocktail at the civilian American car, where it burst into a magnificent fireball. In deep and popular misconception, that destroys the car and kills its occupants. In further misconception, you can be defending Stalingrad and do that against a Nazi Tiger II tank and you suddenly win. But in the words of one of my instructors: “Not so much.”
Throwing one against a buttoned-up tank means that somebody might eventually repaint the tank. Throwing one against a Ford Crown Victoria — if you don’t break a window — means that whoever is in charge of the motorpool will be incredibly annoyed when you bring it back in. Bottom line: Molotovs are lame against anything other than dismounted troops or a structure containing flammable material. But you have to know about them and how to defend against them, because everyone from terrorists to modern street anarchists use them. If you find yourself in a riot, which is plausible given today’s landscape, the Molotov is a common tool.
What Is a Molotov Cocktail?
So what, exactly, is a Molotov cocktail? Many seem to think that all a Molotov is a bottle full of gasoline with a flaming rag out of the top. In fact, throughout history, far more subtle and complex versions emerged. The complexity arises in four ways: the fuel, thickening agents, ignition sources, and the bottle itself.
As for fuel options, besides gasoline, they have included paint thinner, isopropyl alcohol, kerosene, benzene and sometimes an addition of diesel fuel.
Better Molotovs use thickening agents. Why? Because although a massive fireball looks impressive, it’s actually a waste of the thermal content of the fuel. Heating the air far beyond the target accomplishes nothing. Thickening agents allow for a far more efficient transfer of heat to the target. They include military M2 thickener, Styrofoam, laundry detergent, motor oil, and rubber cement, among others.
The traditional flaming rag out the top has significant drawbacks. First, it takes time to ignite and also requires matches or a lighter. Second, it’s instantly and highly visible, particularly in low light level conditions. Third, the rag poses a burn threat to the attacker. Better molotovs use chemical ignition, of which several types are common. A rag or even paper label impregnated with potassium chlorate and sugar will work, if sulfuric acid is added to the fuel mixture.
All bottles are not the same. Any buzzed teenager who has thrown an empty beer bottle at a parking lot only to see it bounce can tell you that, and some wine bottles are remarkably hard to break. Historically, a well-prepared Molotov cocktail features a bottle already tested to break readily. Further, historically, throwers weaken bottles for this purpose. A diamond scribe or a glass cutter can be used to etch long strakes in the glass, although obviously those fighters had to be very careful about prototyping and testing.
Molotov Cocktail Defense
So how do you defend against them? As ever, the best answer is to try avoidance in the first instance. But if that’s not possible, there are options available.
If you’re in a car, try to drive straight at the thrower. Why? Firstly, it will unnerve him. Secondly, the triple-laminate of the windshield won’t shatter the way most safety-glass side windows are designed to. Then after you take the hit, simply keep driving.
If you’re defending a structure and have time to prepare, screw plywood over most of the window, except for a gap to be used as a firing port. Even if the Molotov breaks on the wood (and even if you are in a frame structure), it will most likely char the exterior without actually igniting it. If you don’t have time for plywood, at least try to have a big ABC-class fire extinguisher (preferably several) available. They can douse a gasoline fire. And for rooms that seem the most likely targets of attack, get as much flammable material out as you can, most particularly to include ripping up carpet and padding.
Stop, Drop, and …
Heaven forbid you ignite, what then? Your immediate action drill is the same one you learned in grade school: Stop, drop and roll. If you have a teammate, they can help by putting a blanket or coat over you, preferably of natural materials such as cotton or wool. Don’t use poly materials like tents or tarps because they readily melt and fuse with skin. Of course, if your teammate has an extinguisher available, great. However, try to maintain the presence of mind to hold your breath.
So if you ever have to face a Molotov cocktail, you now have a framework to know its dangers, know its limitations, and how to defend against them.
About the Author
Scott Longman started his career in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency. There he gained experience in both foreign intelligence and counter-insurgency matters. He later joined a federal contractor and spent more than 20 years taking part in hundreds of mock terrorist attacks, at nuclear power plants, Navy bases and other secured facilities. In addition to counter-active shooter instruction, he currently does Critical Infrastructure Protection on behalf of utility clients.
We decided to re-publish this article on the Molotov cocktail, as it has become a go-to weapon employed by the civilian forces fighting in Ukraine. Private citizens everywhere make the fuel-bombs for fighters to use against the invading Russian forces. The New York Post reported that even local brewery Pravda stopped making booze, switching over production to fuel-bombs to aid the resistance.