The effect of lateral cracks on strength controlling contact flaws in brittle materials is examined. Inert strength studies using controlled indentation flaws on a range of ceramic, glass, and single crystal materials reveal significant increases in strength at large contact loads, above the predicted load dependence extrapolated from strength measurements at low indentation loads. The increases are explained by the growth of lateral cracks decohesing the plastic deformation zone associated with the contact from the elastically restraining matrix, thereby reducing the residual stress field driving the strength controlling radial cracks. A strength formulation is developed from indentation fracture mechanics which permits inert strengths to be described over the full range of contact loads. The formulation takes account of the decreased constraint of the plastic deformation zone by lateral crack growth as well as post-contact nonequilibrium growth of the radial cracks. Simple extensions permit the strengths of specimens controlled by impact flaws to be described, as well as those failing under nonequilibrium (fatigue) conditions. The implications for materials evaluation using indentation techniques are discussed and the dangers of unqualified use of strength measurements at large indentation loads pointed out. The work reinforces the conclusion that a full understanding of the residual stress field at dominant contact flaws is necessary to describe the strength of brittle materials. © 1986, Materials Research Society. All rights reserved.