The feeding behaviour of extinct sabretoothed predators (machaeroidines, nimravids, barbourofelids, machairodonts and thylacosmilines) is investigated using beam theory. Because bite force applied along the mandible should be proportional to the external dimension of the mandibular corpus, patterns of variation in these dimensions at interdental gaps will reflect the adaptation of the jaw to specific loads, related to killing methods. Comparison of the mandibular force profiles of sabretooths to those of extant conical-toothed carnivorans of known feeding behaviour reveals that sabretooths had a powerful bite, as strong or stronger than extant felids of similar mandibular length. Loads exerted at the lower canine were better constrained in the sagittal plane than in extant conical-toothed carnivorans, indicating that prey was efficiently restrained when the sabre bite was delivered. The mandibular symphysis is generally better buttressed dorsoventrally in dirk-toothed sabretooths than in scimitar-toothed sabretooths, implying different killing strategies for the two ecomorphs: dirktooths delivered powerful sabre bites on prey they restrained with their forelimbs, while scimitartooths delivered slashing sabre bites and may have used their incisor battery to subdue their prey. The mandibular symphysis of Smilodon fatalis is less buttressed dorsoventrally than that of other dirk-toothed sabretooths, possibly as a consequence of the greater torsional stresses induced while feeding rapidly on carcasses in response to intense competition. The mandibular symphysis of Thylacosmilus atrox is better buttressed dorsoventrally in juveniles than in adults, suggesting that young marsupial sabretooths underwent an extended period of parental care as typically observed in modern felids and inferred for eutherian sabretooths. Finally, machaeroidines and the nimravid Nimravus brachyops are exceptional in exhibiting a degree of dorsoventral buttressing of the mandibular symphysis that is intermediate between advanced sabretooths and conical-toothed felids but similar to the extant Neofelis nebulosa, suggesting that the latter taxon may be close to the ancestral condition of a new sabretooth radiation. © 2005 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2005, 145, 393–426.