Recent crystallographic data suggest that conserved residues in the connection subdomain and C-terminal ribonuclease H (RNase H) domain of human immunodeficiency virus type 1 reverse transcriptase (HIV-1 RT) contact the nascent DNA primer and modulate the trajectory of the template relative to the RNase H catalytic center. Within the RNase H domain, these residues include Thr473, Glu475, Lys476, Tyr501, and Ile505, while His539 and Asn474 interact with the scissile phosphate of the RNA template. Amino acid substitutions at several of these positions were evaluated in the context of hydrolysis of nonspecific RNA-DNA hybrids and substrates mimicking specific RNase H-mediated events. With the exception of mutant I505G, which exhibited a dimerization defect, substituting alanine at positions 473-476 and 501 had minimal consequences for DNA synthesis on duplex and hybrid DNA and RNA substrates. In contrast, the efficiency with which most mutants catalyzed polymerization-independent RNase H cleavage was sharply reduced. This deficiency was more pronounced when mutant enzymes were challenged to process the (+) strand polypurine tract (PPT) primer from either (+) RNA or a PPT/(+) DNA RNA/DNA chimera. Reduced polymerization-independent RNase H activity also significantly influenced the rate of DNA strand transfer, suggesting the donor template must be reduced in size below 13 nt before this event proceeds.