Tensile tests were carried out using specimens of 2009 aluminium alloy reinforced by either SiC whiskers or particles. The size distributions of the whiskers and particles in the matrix were obtained by image analysis. It was found that failure was a result of uniform void nucleation and coalescence in the as fabricated composites, or a result of fast crack propagation initiated by a flaw developed at clusters of SiC in the aged or stretched and aged composites. The strengths of the as fabricated composites were estimated based on the results of image analysis using continuum mechanics and dislocation theories. The estimation indicated that the tensile strengths are largely contributed to by composite strengthening, supplemented by residual dislocation strengthening and work hardening. Owing to the flaw controlled failure, the tensile strengths of the aged or stretched and aged composites were independent of aging time, aging temperature, and the amount of stretching. The elastic moduli of the composites were estimated using the Halpin-Tsai model and a good correlation was found between the measured and estimated moduli. © 1996 The Institute of Materials.