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I was looking at images from the 1939 Winter War https://www.rferl.org/a/finlands-winter-war-with-the-soviet-union/30280490.html

and found this interesting one.

molotov

source

The Molotov cocktail has an aluminum screw cap. I did not think that such caps came into use until after WW2. My google backs that up.

So am I misunderstanding what this cap is? Or is this photo from a modern re-enactment of some sort? The archive this is from is supposed to be photos from that war. Are there other things in this photo (button? carabiner?) that mark it as more recent?

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  • The original source of the pic: Finnish Wartime Photograph Archive
    – tohuwawohu
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 17:44
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    Another 1940 "Molotov Cocktail", seemingly from Sweden (???): digitaltmuseum.se/011024478188/brannflaska-m-1940 - looks quite similar to me
    – tohuwawohu
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 17:44
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    @tohuwawohu that one is even more interesting because the breakaway metal ring is still on the neck of the bottle.
    – Willk
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 17:54
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    It's a metal screw cap, why do you think it's aluminum? Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 17:42
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    I found a page that says "The higher levels of precision attainable with automatic bottle machines and the adoption of industry-wide standards for external thread finishes and metal screw cap closures between 1919 and 1924 spelled the end of cork as the dominant closure type (Lief 1965)." This page doesn't discuss the type of metal used, but metal screw caps were common back then. Also interesting: "the first plastic screw caps were used in 1922 (on toothpaste tubes)"! Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 17:51

3 Answers 3

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Or is this photo from a modern re-enactment of some sort? The archive this is from is supposed to be photos from that war. Are there other things in this photo (button? carabiner?) that mark it as more recent?

The source of that photo is the photo archive of the Finnish Defense Forces. The location is unknown ("tuntematon"), but they give the date as March 8, 1940.

There is a second photo which includes a satchel charge, explosives wrapped around a stick grenade.

enter image description here


...the breakaway metal ring is still on the neck of the bottle

OP Comment.

Good eye!

Many Molotov Cocktails are improvised. That one was made at the bottling plant! And yes, the cap is aluminum.

Korkki oli alun perin alumiininen sinettikapseli ja myöhemmin bakeliittia, tiiviste korkkia tai vahattua pahvia.

Sotahistoriallinen aikakauskirja 24, p134

The cap was originally an aluminum seal capsule and later Bakelite, seal cap or waxed cardboard.

Google translate

During the Winter War, Finland was so short of anti-tank weaponry that they began mass producing Molotov Cocktails. Various bottling plants, and eventually the state-owned alcohol monopoly stepped in to manufacture them.

In Sotahistoriallinen aikakauskirja 24, Keijo Heinonen writes in Who Invented The Molotov Cocktail?...

The bottle itself had been the half-litre vodka bottle used by Alko (the state alcohol monopoly) in 1934. A mixture of petrol and paraffin was chosen as the inflammable liquid, to which was added a small amount of tar. As a fuze, two ‘storm matches’, about 12 cm long, were attached to the sides of the bottle by two insulation tapes; the ties were further strengthened by wire.

The memoirs of Juho Niuk- kanen, minister of defence during the Winter War, give a lively descrip­tion of how, having heard that it was technically possible, he directly ordered Alko to fill explosive bottles in its factories ‘until 40,000 bott­les have been sent to the front’.

Alko took its task seriously. The initial contract for 40,000 had been de­ livered in the course of a few weeks. Deliveries continued throughout the Winter War so that by spring 1940 Alko had produced a total of 542,104 explosive bottles, some being ‘match’ bottles and others the so-called A bottles, in which an ignition ampoule was fitted inside the bottle.

Unlike the homemade "rag in a bottle of gasoline" versions, these were safer and more effective. You'd light the matches, throw the bottle, it would shatter on the target covering it in a sticky flammable mess which the lit matches would ignite.

enter image description here

An original Molotov Cocktail at the Rajamäki distillery

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  • @njuffa Wikipedia is unrefrenced. :shrug: I tracked down the original reference used by Finland at War and they say half-liter (500 ml).
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 3:31
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    "And yes, the cap is aluminum." Do you have a reference for that? It's metal, no doubt, metal screw caps were very common at the time, but I can't find any information about which metal was used then. Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 17:52
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    @CrisLuengo It's mentioned in the Finland at War and Finnish Military History Society articles. "Korkki oli alun perin alumiininen sinettikapseli ja myöhemmin bakeliittia, tiiviste korkkia tai vahattua pahvia." or via Google Translate "The cap was originally an aluminum seal capsule and later Bakelite, seal cap or waxed cardboard." I don't think it's doing a great job translating "alumiininen sinettikapseli".
    – Schwern
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 18:01
  • Thank you! I knew that aluminum was rather expensive for a long time, until modern refinement processes were invented. But by the beginning of the 20th century it was already quite cheap, so an aluminum cap is not strange after all! "when a lightweight aluminum crankcase for their engine enabled the Wright Brothers to take their famous first flight, the metal was about $0.30 per pound." Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 18:18
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    @Schwern The Finnish sentence is a bit terse but it talks separately about the material of the cap, and the seal inside of the cap. Adding some implicit words I'd translate it as "The cap was originally an aluminium seal cap and later [made of] bakelite, [while] the seal [was made of] cork or waxed cardboard."
    – Dronir
    Commented Jan 12, 2023 at 13:06
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It seems that wine screwcaps didn't take off until after the war per Wikipedia, but they were more common on other bottle types from the 1920s onwards, per this article:

The higher levels of precision attainable with automatic bottle machines and the adoption of industry-wide standards for external thread finishes and metal screw cap closures between 1919 and 1924 spelled the end of cork as the dominant closure type (Lief 1965). Externally threaded bottles probably dominated the market by the late 1920s with cork sealed bottles becoming increasing more uncommon after that date with the exception of wine bottles, many liquor bottles, and bottles sealed with the revolutionary crown caps (Lief 1965).

Hard to be sure but I don't think the one in the photo is wine-bottle sized - maybe a bit smaller? - and so perhaps would be more likely to be a screw-capped type.

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The factory museum Rajamäen Ryyppi would be the place for first hand information about the adoption of metal screw caps. Their video about Molotov cocktails has photos of the production line and crates of the product.

Amusingly a search of Finnish National Library Archives produced a newspaper article from 1938 concerning the theft of ALKO screw caps and their use in fraud. It mentions the caps were stolen from a shipping consignment, suggesting they were sourced from abroad.

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  • Possibly sourced from abroad, but definitely not make at the ALKO factory itself.
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jan 13, 2023 at 13:40

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