Magnesium alloys are attracting increasing research interests due to their low density, high specific strength, good machinability and availability as compared to other structural materials. However, the deformation and failure mechanisms of nanocrystalline (nc) Mg alloys have not been well understood. In this work, the deformation behaviour of nc Mg-5Al alloys was investigated using compression test, with focus on the effects of grain size. The average grain size of the Mg- Al alloy was changed from 13 to 50 nm via mechanical milling. The results showed that grain size had a significant influence on the yield stress and ductility of the Mg alloys, and the materials exhibited increased strain rate sensitivity with a decrease in grain size. The deformation mechanisms were also strongly dependent on the grain sizes. © 2012 W. S. Maney & Son Ltd.