One of the primary goals of Bureau of Mines research is to reduce the cost of coal mining by improving the efficiency of longwall supports. One method of achieving this goal is the optimization of stress distribution within the support structure, resulting in a lower overall weight, more fully stressed shield. However, before stress optimization can be initiated, load conditions must be defined that cause maximum stress in the various support components. A finite-element model of a longwall shield was used to identify these critical load conditions. These load conditions were then evaluated in the Bureau's mine roof simulator by instrumentation of a longwall shield and measurement of strains in each of the shield components. The critical (canopy-base contact) load conditions were identified that can cause structural failure at less than rated shield (hydraulic yield) capacity. Comparisons were made between full-contact and partial-contact load conditions. Other parameters investigated included the stiffness of the contact material, changes in shield geometry, rate of load application, and effects of horizontal constraint. Conclusions were drawn regarding the structural integrity of the major shield components and potential for stress optimization.