Electrical stimulation of the digital nerves can cause short- and long-latency increases in electromyographic activity (EMG) of the hand muscles, but mechanical stimulation of primarily tactile afferents in the digits generally evokes only a long-latency increase in EMG. To examine whether such stimuli can elicit short-latency reflex responses, we recorded EMG over the first dorsal interosseous muscle when subjects (n=13) used the tip of the right index finger to restrain a horizontally oriented plate from moving when very brisk tangential forces were applied in the distal direction. The plate was subjected to ramp-and-hold pulling loads at two intensities (a 1-N load applied at 32 N/s or a 2-N load applied at 64 N/s) at times unpredictable to the subjects (mean interval 2 s; trial duration 500 ms). The contact surface of the manipulandum was covered with rayon--a slippery material. For each load, EMG was averaged for 128 consecutive trials with reference to the ramp onset. In all subjects, an automatic increase in grip force was triggered by the loads applied at 32 N/s; the mean onset latency of the EMG response was 59.8 +/- 0.9 (mean +/- SE) ms. In seven subjects (54%) this long-latency response was preceded by a weak short-latency excitation at 34.6 +/- 2.9 ms. With the loads applied at 64 N/s, the long-latency response occurred slightly earlier (58.9 +/- 1.7 ms) and, with one exception, all subjects generated a short-latency EMG response (34.9 +/- 1.3 ms). Despite the higher background grip force that subjects adopted during the stronger loads (4.9 +/- 0.3 N vs 2.5 +/- 0.2 N), the incidence of slips was higher--the manipulandum escaped from the grasp in 37 +/- 5% of trials with the 64 N/s ramps, but in only 18 +/- 4% with the 32-N/s ramps. The deformation of the fingertip caused by the tangential load, rather than incipient or overt slips, triggered the short-latency responses because such responses occurred even when the finger pad was fixed to the manipulandum with double-sided adhesive tape so that no slips occurred.