The diagnosis of engagement of the fetal head is mandatory before operative vaginal delivery is to be attempted. There is widespread belief that the fetal head is engaged in the maternal pelvis when vaginal examination reveals that the bony presenting part has reached the level of the ischial spines. However, it is also claimed that in the presence of moulding the vaginal findings may be misleading and that it may be preferable to make the diagnosis by abdominal examination of the level of the fetal head in relation to the pelvic brim. In order to evaluate the relative merits of each of these 2 systems of physical examination, a retrospective study was made of 104 cases which had been evaluated for possible operative vaginal delivery by both methods. Prediction of successful vaginal delivery was greater by abdominal criteria (94%) than by vaginal criteria (80%) (p < 0.01). When evaluated by maximum likelihood logistic regression analyses, the factor of greatest importance in determining the probability of allocation of a case to each of the engagement groups was moulding (odds ratio 2.17; 95% confidence intervals 0.75-6.27). We conclude that when these 2 methods of assessment produce different diagnoses, the major factor responsible is moulding of the fetal head. Clinical evaluation prior to operative vaginal delivery must include abdominal examination and reliance on vaginal findings alone may prove misleading when moulding is present.