In response to complement activation, the membrane attack complex (MAC) assembles from fluid-phase proteins to form pores in lipid bilayers. MAC directly lyses pathogens by a 'multi-hit' mechanism; however, sublytic MAC pores on host cells activate signalling pathways. Previous studies have described the structures of individual MAC components and subcomplexes; however, the molecular details of its assembly and mechanism of action remain unresolved. Here we report the electron cryo-microscopy structure of human MAC at subnanometre resolution. Structural analyses define the stoichiometry of the complete pore and identify a network of interaction interfaces that determine its assembly mechanism. MAC adopts a 'split-washer' configuration, in contrast to the predicted closed ring observed for perforin and cholesterol-dependent cytolysins. Assembly precursors partially penetrate the lipid bilayer, resulting in an irregular β-barrel pore. Our results demonstrate how differences in symmetric and asymmetric components of the MAC underpin a molecular basis for pore formation and suggest a mechanism of action that extends beyond membrane penetration.