Che Guevara Was Really Into Shotguns and Molotov Cocktails
Hey, it worked in the ’50s
Shotguns and Molotov cocktails are standard fare during the early phases of revolutions. They’re common and easily obtained in urban and rural areas. Spent shotgun casings are relatively simple and inexpensive to reload.
Likewise, Molotov cocktails can be made from an array of readily available household materials — basically, a liquor bottle and some flammable liquid.
But these weapons have obvious limitations, and rebel groups tend to abandon them in favor of more versatile and effective weapons as soon as they can.
Ernesto “Che” Guevara seemed to think otherwise.
In 1961, two years after Fidel Castro’s rebel army paraded victoriously into Havana, Guevara published Guerrilla Warfare, a succinct volume that serves as part memoir, part field manual and part philosophical tract on the “essence” of guerrilla warfare.
He derived the material from his experiences in the Cuban revolution. Guevara advocated abandoning most civilian weapons in favor of those captured from a conventional, opposing army. But he made an exception for shotguns, and he encouraged guerrillas to never abandon them.
Shotguns are “tremendous weapons … of great importance,” he wrote. He also referred to the Molotov cocktail as “a weapon of extraordinary effectiveness.”
Indeed, shotguns remained common among Guevara’s comrades well beyond the early phases of the revolution — and even after they seized large amounts of weapons from Cuban soldiers.
During the war, Guevara implored civilian sympathizers to support the rebels by offering food, money and a place to rest when needed — and to produce Molotov cocktails, too.
Much of the subject matter in Guerilla Warfare concerns general tactics and strategies, civil organization, procuring medical supplies and treatment, sabotage, propaganda and gathering and disseminating intelligence.
But there are some more curious moments, such as the description of the weapon Guevara and his guerrillas christened the “M-16.” This isn’t to be mistaken with the assault rifle the U.S. military would soon adopt.
The weapon Guevara and his men called the “M-16” was a sawed-off 16-guage break-breach shotgun modified into a makeshift mortar for launching Molotov cocktails.
It worked like this.
A pair of adjustable legs formed a tripod at the butt of the gun, which made it possible to fire while resting on the ground. The operator then loaded a shotgun shell with the shot removed. Finally, the user inserted a stick — with a bottle of gasoline resting on the end — into the muzzle.
The Cuban M-16 could launch a Molotov “a hundred meters or more with a fairly high degree of accuracy,” Guevara wrote. It was “an ideal weapon for entrenchments when the enemy has many wooden or inflammable material constructions — also for firing against tanks in hilly country.”
During ambushes, Guevara made a point of concentrating his firepower on the leading elements of Cuban army formations. This was a form of both physical and psychological warfare.
“After the leading ranks have been struck several times, thus diffusing among the soldiers the news that death is constantly occurring to those in the van[guard], the reluctance to occupy those places will provoke nothing less than mutiny,” he wrote.
Unarmored buses or open troop trucks often transported Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista’s infantry troops. These vehicles became another favorite target for Guevara’s shotgun-toting rebels in rural areas.
“A 16-caliber shotgun with large shot can sweep 10 meters, nearly the whole area of the truck, killing some of the occupants, wounding others, and provoking an enormous confusion,” he advised.
As the rebels emerged from the hills and jungles of the Sierra Maestra into more populated areas, they seized significant amounts of Cristobal carbines and hand grenades. These became the rebels’ standard weapons.
But the shotgun and Molotov still played important roles. For one, shotguns were easy to keep supplied. “The ammunition can be obtained in the [rebel] zone itself or in the cities,” he wrote.
Guevara added later that shotgun shells could be easily recharged in small, hidden rebel “shops,” or friendly shops within rebel-held areas. At this point in the war, shotguns were of particular value to small guerrilla bands infiltrating towns and cities to gather intelligence and commit acts of sabotage.
Such a band would only need weapons for “personal defense,” and they would need to be “of the type that do not hinder a rapid flight or betray a secure hiding place,” Guevara explained.
“The band ought to have not more than one carbine or one sawed-off shotgun, or perhaps two, with pistols for the other members.”
On Dec. 28, 1958, Guevara led 350 men in an attack on Santa Clara, the capital of Villa Clara province. The rebels faced off against a force of 4,000 Cuban soldiers and police.
Guevara and his men set up a temporary base at the university. There was a 22-car military train full of weapons and reinforcements at the city’s station.
It was a crucial target for Guevara.
He decided to divide his troops, sending some to attack an encampment of soldiers in the Capiro Hills on the eastern side of the city, while he and his men would captured an armored train. The guerrillas then used a tractor from the university’s school of agronomy to destroy the train tracks.
The rebels began attacking small targets in the city as they worked their way toward their primary targets.
“Numerous civilians heeded Che’s call to arms, making Molotov cocktails, providing refuge and food, and barricading their streets,” biographer Jon Lee Anderson wrote in Che Guevara — A Revolutionary Life.
There were small skirmishes and pitched firefights. Rebels sometimes moved forward by breaking holes through walls to move from house to house as tank fire, artillery and planes strafed the city.
The fighting turned in the rebel’s favor the next day when they captured the train station. Cuban troops in the Capiro Hills abandoned their positions soon after.
Many of the soldiers joined those already in the train in the hope that its armor would provide protection. When they attempted to escape in the train, it derailed where Guevara had torn up the tracks.
“A very interesting battle began,” Guevara recalled.
Batista’s men held up in the armored cars, exchanging fire with rebels who positioned themselves in nearby buildings. Finally, Guevara ordered his men to bombard the train with Molotov cocktails.
“Assaulted by men who from nearby positions and adjoining carriages threw bottles of burning gasoline,” he wrote in his diaries. “The train became a veritable oven for the soldiers, thanks to its armored plating.”
“In a few hours, the whole lot surrendered with their 22 carriages, their anti-aircraft guns, their machine guns of the same type, and their fabulous quantity of ammunition.”
The rest of the soldiers positioned throughout the city surrendered without much of a fight.
The capture of the Santa Clara was the last major battle of the revolution. A few days later, the guerrillas rolled into Havana and took the La Cabana fortress without resistance.