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MFC under the hood

, 2 Jul 2002 CPOL
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Explains the basic MFC program flow including where WinMain and the message loop are hidden


Most MFC/VC++ programmers generate their projects using App Wizard and are quite happy with that. Once in a while, you have a programmer who will ask you, what happened to WinMain and he is normally satisfied with the answer given that WinMain is hidden within the MFC libraries. In this article I'll try and explain the life-cycle of a typical MFC program. Before I do that I'd like to introduce you to the smallest MFC program you can write that will show a window on screen, other than by using a MessageBox.

Smallest MFC window-program

class CNWinApp  : public CWinApp
    BOOL InitInstance();
#include <afxwin.h>
#include "NWinApp.h"

CNWinApp app;

BOOL CNWinApp::InitInstance()
    CFrameWnd *pnframe=new CFrameWnd;
    return TRUE;

So, what happened to good old WinMain?

When you run your program the kernel first calls this function, WinMainCRTStartup. WinMainCRTStartup first initializes the CRT routines. Then it parses the command line and removes the filename portion and calls WinMain passing the parsed command line as lpszCommandLine. But then where is WinMain? Smile | :) It is defined in appmodul.cpp which you can find in your MFC\SRC directory. Here is how the function is implemented.

extern "C" int WINAPI
_tWinMain(HINSTANCE hInstance, HINSTANCE hPrevInstance,
	LPTSTR lpCmdLine, int nCmdShow)
    // call shared/exported WinMain
    return AfxWinMain(hInstance, hPrevInstance, lpCmdLine, nCmdShow);

As you will observe, WinMain simply calls AfxWinMain. AfxWinMain is defined in winmain.cpp which you will find under your MFC\SRC directory. I'll list the function below exactly as it is defined.

int AFXAPI AfxWinMain(HINSTANCE hInstance, HINSTANCE hPrevInstance,
	LPTSTR lpCmdLine, int nCmdShow)
    ASSERT(hPrevInstance == NULL);

    int nReturnCode = -1;
    CWinThread* pThread = AfxGetThread();
    CWinApp* pApp = AfxGetApp();

    // AFX internal initialization
    if (!AfxWinInit(hInstance, hPrevInstance, lpCmdLine, nCmdShow))
        goto InitFailure;

    // App global initializations (rare)
    if (pApp != NULL && !pApp->InitApplication())
        goto InitFailure;

    // Perform specific initializations
    if (!pThread->InitInstance())
        if (pThread->m_pMainWnd != NULL)
            TRACE0("Warning: Destroying non-NULL m_pMainWnd\n");
        nReturnCode = pThread->ExitInstance();
        goto InitFailure;
    nReturnCode = pThread->Run();

#ifdef _DEBUG
    // Check for missing AfxLockTempMap calls
    if (AfxGetModuleThreadState()->m_nTempMapLock != 0)
        TRACE1("Warning: Temp map lock count non-zero (%ld).\n",

    return nReturnCode;

As you can see the functions AfxGetThread and AfxGetApp are used to get pointers to the CWinApp derived global object  and the current thread. If you are surprised as to how the global CWinApp derived object already exists, relax, C++ programs will first create all global and static objects before execution begins. All that happens much before AfxWinMain gets called. By the way, it must have been a slight shock to you to see a goto in there, eh?

Now there might be those of you who might be wondering where AfxGetThread and AfxGetApp got their information from. The answer is simple. Take a look at the CWinApp constructor in appcore.cpp. You'll find the following two lines.

pThreadState->m_pCurrentWinThread = this;


pModuleState->m_pCurrentWinApp = this;

pThreadState is a AFX_MODULE_THREAD_STATE* and pModuleState is a AFX_MODULE_STATE*.

Thus when we create our global CNWinApp object, it's constructor gets called and the AFX_MODULE_STATE structure is setup properly. Now AfxWinInit is called and this function initializes the MFC framework. Now there is a call to InitApplication [this is for backward compatibility with 16-bit applications]. Now it calls the InitInstance of the CWinApp derived object. And as you can see from our code listing above we have overridden InitInstance and created a CFrameWnd object there. I'll repeat the code snippet here so that you won't have to scroll upwards.

BOOL CNWinApp::InitInstance()
    CFrameWnd *pnframe=new CFrameWnd;
    return TRUE;

I have created my CFrameWnd object on the heap, otherwise the moment InitInstance exits, the window will get destroyed. I have also set m_pMainWnd to point to my CFrameWnd window. Once InitInstance returns [if it returns false an error is assumed, so we return true], CWinApp::Run is called. Within the Run function is implemented our default message loop. Run keeps getting and dispatching messages till it receives a WM_QUIT message. Once WM_QUIT is received Run returns and control returns to AfxWinMain which performs clean-up and lastly calls AfxWinTerm which deletes all the global application structures that were created.

Well, that's it. Pretty amusing to think that all this while you were writing MFC applications and you never bothered to think about what was happening under the hood.


None of the information in this article is endorsed by me. I don't work for Microsoft and all my assumptions are just that - assumptions. Some of the info I have given might indeed be incorrect, though I'd say the probability for that is rather low. In case I have erred I'll be delighted if someone can correct those mistakes.


This article, along with any associated source code and files, is licensed under The Code Project Open License (CPOL)


About the Author

Nish Nishant

United States United States
Nish is a real nice guy who has been writing code since 1990 when he first got his hands on an 8088 with 640 KB RAM. Originally from sunny Trivandrum in India, he has been living in various places over the past few years and often thinks it’s time he settled down somewhere.
Nish has been a Microsoft Visual C++ MVP since October, 2002 - awfully nice of Microsoft, he thinks. He maintains an MVP tips and tricks web site - where you can find a consolidated list of his articles, writings and ideas on VC++, MFC, .NET and C++/CLI. Oh, and you might want to check out his blog on C++/CLI, MFC, .NET and a lot of other stuff -
Nish loves reading Science Fiction, P G Wodehouse and Agatha Christie, and also fancies himself to be a decent writer of sorts. He has authored a romantic comedy Summer Love and Some more Cricket as well as a programming book – Extending MFC applications with the .NET Framework.
Nish's latest book C++/CLI in Action published by Manning Publications is now available for purchase. You can read more about the book on his blog.
Despite his wife's attempts to get him into cooking, his best effort so far has been a badly done omelette. Some day, he hopes to be a good cook, and to cook a tasty dinner for his wife.

Comments and Discussions

Question5ed for answering a question PinmvpSergey Alexandrovich Kryukov21-Nov-13 17:12 
AnswerRe: 5ed for answering a question PinsitebuilderNish Sivakumar22-Nov-13 5:12 
GeneralRe: 5ed for answering a question PinmvpSergey Alexandrovich Kryukov22-Nov-13 5:17 
GeneralMy vote of 5 Pinmemberchandanadhikari8-Apr-13 21:45 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 PinsitebuilderNish Sivakumar22-Nov-13 5:12 
GeneralMy vote of 4 Pinmemberhakz.code1-Oct-12 0:54 
GeneralRe: My vote of 4 PinmvpNish Sivakumar1-Oct-12 3:01 
GeneralRe: My vote of 4 Pinmemberhakz.code1-Oct-12 3:27 
oops! forgive my ignorance,can I ask one more doubt - When we already have a handle to CNWinApp in pApp,why is pThread used for calling InitInstance in pThread->InitInstance()?
Thanks and Regards,
GeneralRe: My vote of 4 PinmvpNish Sivakumar1-Oct-12 8:41 
QuestionIs CNWinApp a typo or I am missing something?! Pinmemberhakz.code1-Oct-12 0:53 
AnswerRe: Is CNWinApp a typo or I am missing something?! PinmvpNish Sivakumar1-Oct-12 3:00 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberNitheesh George1-Aug-12 22:59 
AnswerRe: My vote of 5 PinmvpNish Sivakumar1-Oct-12 3:01 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberDarrylB19-Oct-11 4:17 
AnswerRe: My vote of 5 PinmvpNish Sivakumar1-Oct-12 3:00 
GeneralMy vote of 5 PinmemberNithin Sundar14-Feb-11 17:55 
GeneralRe: My vote of 5 PinmvpNishant Sivakumar25-Apr-11 12:48 
GeneralUseful! PinmemberGianni Gardini5-Sep-08 6:10 
Questionevent for ownerdrawn button Pinmembersanthoshv8418-Dec-06 21:10 
QuestionAFXAPI Pinmemberchernobyl15-Dec-06 16:40 
GeneralWinApp fails initialization PinmemberDavid_Leikis14-Nov-05 9:19 
GeneralRe: WinApp fails initialization PinstaffNishant Sivakumar14-Nov-05 9:57 
GeneralRe: WinApp fails initialization PinmemberDavid_Leikis14-Nov-05 11:06 
GeneralRe: WinApp fails initialization PinmemberRsK_frmrf23-Sep-06 13:12 
GeneralRe: WinApp fails initialization PinmemberAbyss27-May-07 8:18 

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