Actin polymerization in vivo is dependent on free barbed ends that act as nuclei. Free barbed ends can arise in vivo by nucleation from the Arp2/3 complex, uncapping of barbed ends on pre-existing filaments or severing of filaments by cofilin. There is evidence that each mechanism operates in cells. However, different cell types use different combinations of these processes to generate barbed ends during stimulated cell motility. Here, I describe recent attempts to define the relative contributions of these three mechanisms to actin nucleation in vivo. The rapid increase in the number of barbed ends during stimulation is not due to any single mechanism. Cooperation between capping proteins, cofilin and the Arp2/3 complex is necessary for the development of protrusive force at the leading edge of the cell: uncapping and cofilin severing contributing barbed ends, whereas activity of the Arp2/3 complex is necessary, but not sufficient, for lamellipod extension. These results highlight the need for new methods that enable the direct observation of actin nucleation and so define precisely the relative contributions of the three processes to stimulated cell motility.