Makeshift Fire Extinguisher RPG Warhead

In December images of Chechen volunteers fighting with the Ukrainian Armed Forces began to feature an interesting craft-made weapon – an RPG munition made from the body of a small fire extinguisher. 

These RPG-warheads improvised from fire extinguishers have appeared in numerous videos and photographs of the Sheikh Mansur Battalion. The battalion was formed back in 2014 and is made up of exiled Chechens who reject Russian control of their region. The battalion itself is named after an 18th century Chechen military leader Sheikh Mansur. The battalion had disbanded in 2019, but reformed in March 2022 following the invasion. Since then they have reportedly seen action during the Battle of Kyiv, in the Donbas, during the Battle of Sievierodonetsk and most recently in the fighting around Bakhmut. 

There’s a long history of improvised warheads adapted for launch from the RPG-7 but I think this is the first time I’ve seen a fire extinguisher body used, at least in this phase of the fighting in Ukraine. 

A section of the Sheikh Mansur Battalion, with a craft-made fire extinguisher munition, Bahkmut, December 2022 (via Sheikh Mansur Battalion)

It appears that the fire extinguisher body has been emptied and filled with whatever explosive and shrapnel material is readily available and then adapted to fit the sustainer motor and booster assemblies. They appear to use V-429 or V-429E point detonating fuzes. These fuzes were developed for use on high explosive (HE) projectiles used by various Combloc weapon systems including the T-12 and MT-12 100mm anti-tank guns and the 115mm main gun of the T-62 and 125mm main guns of the T-64, T-72, T-80 and T-90 series tanks. Some other fuzes appear to be used too but conceivably any impact fuze would work. The inertia armed fuzes normally arm within 5-15m of the muzzle once fired from a conventional barrel. It appears that the fuzes have been epoxied into place.

Close up of a craft-made fire extinguisher munition, Bahkmut, December 2022 (via social media)

How the mass and shape of the improvised round impacts the velocity of the warhead once it is fired is unclear. But Bild correspondent Bjorn Stritzel, who recently met with members of the Battalion while writing an article about them, told me that the range of the warheads is about 100m. He noted that the Chechen’s have found them to be ‘very effective in Bakhmut’ and that ‘apparently its firepower surprised RF entrenched in houses’ according to radio chatter picked up by the Battalion. 

While we don’t have a perfect close up of them the extinguishers themselves appear to be small 2kg (or 5lbs) units which contain powder. From a quick survey of some Ukrainian websites which sell the extinguishers, the price of these ranges between 300 and 500 Hryvnias (or $8 & $14).

A member of the Sheik Mansur Battalion demonstrates a craft-made fire extinguisher munition, Bahkmut, December 2022 (via Sky News)

The fire extinguisher rounds are probably being used as anti-personnel weapons which would be fitting for the sort of fighting occurring around Bakhmut where the majority of the imagery is said to be coming from. The thin steel body of the extinguisher may provide suitable fragmentation or depending on the metallurgy it may just rupture. According to Stritzel the filling of the warheads is around 50% explosive and 50% shrapnel material. He also noted that the Chechen’s described the warhead as being “three times more powerful than a normal OG-7V [fragmentation RPG-7 round]”. 

Two craft-made fire extinguisher munitions, Bahkmut, December 2022 (via Bjorn Stritzel)

The first video featuring the improvised warheads was published by the Sheikh Mansur Battalion on their social media in around mid December. In a Sky News report from the 22 December, a member of the Battalion demonstrates how one of the extinguisher warheads is loaded. A video posted to the Battalion’s social media on the 27 December showed a number, perhaps four, of the improvised rounds stacked ready for use with booster assemblies attached. 

On the 31 December, the Battalion shared a photograph of a group of eight Battalion members, one of which can be seen holding an RPG-7 with one of the improvised extinguisher rounds loaded. During the second week of January, a short, undated, video of an individual in a fighting position firing one of the craft-made warheads was shared. We get some idea of the weight of the round in this clip.

The most recent video (see stills above), posted on TikTok, on the 12 January, shows two of the improvised munitions being fired. These warheads follow the same design but differ slightly in that the fire extinguisher body appears to have been cut open at the centre and then welded back together. Perhaps this is done to easier fill the munition or perhaps to shorten a longer extinguisher body. For the first time we also get to see the explosion of the rounds down range. This video again gives us a good indication of the weight of the round from the movement of the shooter. It also illustrates the distances the rounds can travel. Notably it appears to be used here against a Russian field work rather than against a building.

With fighting continuing in Bakhmut we are likely to see more of these improvised fire extinguisher rounds in use, especially if they are as effective as the Sheikh Mansur Battalion suggest.


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Bibliography:

V429 Fuze, CAT UXO, (source)

V429E Fuze, CAT UXO, (source)

‘They prefer death to Russian torture’, Bild, (source)

The Chechens fighting Putin in Ukraine, Sky News, (source)

Ukraine’s Molotov Cocktails

Almost as soon as the war began we started to see evidence of Molotov cocktail manufacture. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense was keen to highlight and encourage it to show civilian resolve in the face of the Russian invasion and there’s been numerous news reports and tv news segments on Molotov production. 

Footage of Molotov manufacture spread across social media and was quickly seized upon by the world’s media. Videos from across Ukraine showed children, students, the elderly and ordinary people working makeshift production lines. 

Kyiv civilians gather in a basement downtown to make Molotov Cocktails (Yan Boechat/VOA)

On the 26 February, two days after the Russian invasion women of Dnipro were featured on TV news making Molotov, shaving polystyrene for use as a thickening agent. In Lviv reports from 28 February suggested that 1,500 Molotovs were being made a day at just one makeshift factory. The Pravda brewery in Lviv also garnered attention with its employees and bottles turned over to Molotov production. The brewery manager said that they had produced 2,000 as of 18 March and shipped some to Kyiv. The former Ukrainian Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov even posed with Molotov Cocktail he’d made using a bottle of 1998 Château Mouton Rothschild. On 7 March the mayor of Lutsk, Ihor Polishchuk, estimated the city had a stockpile of as many as 7,000 Molotovs.

Ukrainian graphic showing where to throw Molotovs at a BTR-82A (Ukrainian MoD)

The morning after the invasion the Ukrainian National Guard posted a graphic showing how to make a Molotov and on the 28 February, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces share some graphics suggesting the best places to hit Russian vehicles with Molotovs. And there have also been billboards posted with instructions on how to make a Molotov and another with a simplified graphic showing good spots to throw them. 

We have also seen a number of interesting delivery systems developed ranging from a medieval-inspired catapults to a pneumatic mortar. On 28 February we got our first video of a Molotov being used. With a short video showing a Molotov drive-by, with a Ukrainian’s throwing a Molotov against the rear of a Russian vehicle before speeding away. Since then a handful of other videos have shown Ukrainian civilians or Territorial Defence Force members destroying abandoned Russian vehicles and equipment.

A Russian support vehicle struck by a Molotov Cocktail early in the conflict (via social media)

Historically speaking, petrol-based improvised incendiary bombs have been used since the 1930s. Perhaps the first prominent use came during the Spanish Civil War. The weapons gained their nickname during the Winter War after Soviet foreign minister Molotov. During the Second World War Molotov cocktails were one of the first weapons made by the fledgling British Home Guard, with them remaining in their arsenal well into the war. Both the British and US regular army’s trained with Molotovs during the early years of the war and they were certainly used by Soviet forces. Since then they have been used in countless riots, uprisings, revolutions, insurgencies and conflicts around the world.  

Soldier preparing to throw a Molotov cocktail at Ft. Belvoir, August, 1942 (US National Archives)

How widespread the use of Molotov cocktails has been is pretty much impossible to know at this point. Despite having a comparative wealth of footage and photos from the ground we still only have a tiny picture of what is going on. It does appear that some have been used by the Territorial Defence Force units to destroy abandoned Russian vehicles and some have even been thrown at Russian vehicles – either as part of individual acts of defiance or as part of more coordinated attacks on Russian forces.

While Molotovs may seem futile in the face of a 40+ tonne T-72, they remain a cheap and effective weapon and checkpoints across Ukraine have been seen to have ready supplies of them. For the urban fighting that was expected in cities across Ukraine they make perfect sense as a plentiful, simple weapon which can be used to pepper Russian vehicles. 


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Bibliography:

‘‘I haven’t told my granny’: Ukraine’s student molotov cocktail-makers’, The Guardian, (source)
‘Ukraine conflict: The women making Molotov cocktails to defend their city’, BBC, (source)
‘Ukrainians Prepare Molotov Cocktails in Kyiv’, NYT, (source)
‘Vulnerable areas of enemy machinery’, Ukraine General Staff, (source)
‘Stark photos show Ukrainians, and even a local brewery, making Molotov cocktails to defend their cities’, Insider, (source)
How To Make a Molotov, Ukrainian National Guard, (source)
‘Catapult for throwing “Molotov cocktails” created in Lutsk’, Rubryka (source)
‘Ukrainian brewery switches from beer to Molotov cocktails’, France24, (source)