Viral shells are self-assembled protein nanocontainers with remarkable material properties. They combine simplicity of construction with toughness and complex functionality. These properties make them interesting for bionanotechnology. To date we know little about how virus structure determines assembly pathways and shell mechanics. We have here used atomic force microscopy to study structural failure of the shells of the bacteriophage Φ29. We observed rigidity patterns following the symmetry of the capsid proteins. Under prolonged force exertion, we observed fracture along well-defined lines of the 2D crystal lattice. The mechanically most stable building block of the shells was a trimer. Our approach of "reverse engineering" the virus shells thus made it possible to identify stable structural intermediates. Such stable intermediates point to a hierarchy of interactions among equal building blocks correlated with distinct next-neighbor interactions. The results also demonstrate that concepts from macroscopic materials science, such as fracture, can be usefully employed in molecular engineering.