The cranial motor nerves control muscles involved in eye, head and neck movements, feeding, speech and facial expression. The generic and specific properties of cranial motor neurons depend on a matrix of rostrocaudal and dorsoventral patterning information. Repertoires of transcription factors, including Hox genes, confer generic and specific properties on motor neurons, and endow subpopulations at various axial levels with the ability to navigate to their targets. Cranial motor axon projections are guided by diffusible cues and aided by guideposts, such as nerve exit points, glial cells and muscle primordia. The recent identification of genes that are mutated in human cranial dysinnervation disorders is now shedding light on the functional consequences of perturbations of cranial motor neuron development.