Based on the fundamental thin shell theory applied to thin continuous cylindrical shells, a method for calculating the stability of the corresponding grid shell structures is developed. Mathematical modeling is performed and factors of critical state of structures are determined. Critical deformation zones are identified and the patterns of changes in shell geometry under actual loads are established. The dependencies of strength and shape-forming parameters are obtained depending on the material and the number of half-waves of the stability loss shape. The critical load is determined taking into account the possible rigidity of multi-element grids, and the results of numerical studies are presented. A noticeable difference in the values of critical load is shown and the admissible limits of applicability of geometric parameters are found. A significant sensitivity of shells with a rhombic mesh are noted. © Published under licence by IOP Publishing Ltd.