This paper presents a study of stall inception mechanisms in a low-speed axial compressor. Previous work has identified two common flow breakdown sequences, the first associated with a short length-scale disturbance known as a “spike,” and the second with a longer length-scale disturbance known as a “modal oscillation.” In this paper the physical differences between these two mechanisms are illustrated with detailed measurements. Experimental results are also presented that relate the occurrence of the two stalling mechanisms to the operating conditions of the compressor. It is shown that the stability criteria for the two disturbances are different: Long length-scale disturbances are related to a two-dimensional instability of the whole compression system, while short length-scale disturbances indicate a three-dimensional breakdown of the flow-field associated with high rotor incidence angles. Based on the experimental measurements, a simple model is proposed that explains the type of stall inception pattern observed in a particular compressor. Measurements from a single-stage low-speed compressor and from a multistage high-speed compressor are presented in support of the model.