The distribution of tensile stress, across the splitting plane, has been investigated for the case when circular and square tablets are subjected to opposing compressive line loads acting in the through thickness direction. This type of loading is referred to in the paper as axial compression. Analytical solutions for the two-dimensional problem of a rectangular strip have been used to investigate the variation of stress in the through thickness direction and to consider the effects of load spreading. Three-dimensional finite element analysis has been used to investigate the variation in stress across the diameter, or breadth, of the tablets. It is shown that the magnitude of the tensile stress varies significantly throughout and that load spreading has an important influence on the stress distribution in the through thickness direction. Experiments have been carried out with microcrystalline cellulose (Avicel PH102) material for circular and square tablets to determine their breaking loads when subjected to axial compression and diametral compression. The experimental results show higher breaking loads for the case of axial compression. It is concluded that the platen contact width must be known in order to evaluate the exact value of the tensile strength of the tablet material when applying this test procedure.