A single cycle of nucleotide incorporation by the reverse transcriptase of the human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1 RT) involves the initial binding of an incoming nucleotide, a conformational change that traps the substrate, the formation of a new phosphodiester bond, the release of pyrophosphate (PPi), and ultimately polymerase translocation, which clears the nucleotide binding site. This article reviews different mechanistic models for polymerase translocation with emphasis placed on HIV-1 RT. Structure-function analyses of stalled complexes of HIV-1 RT provide strong evidence to suggest that the enzyme can oscillate between pre- and post-translocational states. Nucleotide hydrolysis is not required for the movement of the polymerase in a stalled configuration; thermal energy is sufficient to allow random bidirectional sliding. The next complementary nucleotide, following the incorporated chain-terminator, acts like a pawl of a ratchet that traps the enzyme in the post-translocation state and prevents the reverse movement. Quantitative footprinting experiments have shown that the concentration of the templated nucleotide required to shift the translocational equilibrium forward depends crucially on the structure of the 3'end of the primer. Changes in the relative population of pre- and post-translocation complexes can influence rates of excision of incorporated NRTIs, which, in turn, affects drug susceptibility. The concept of a ratchet model of HIV-1 RT translocation and its implications for drug action and resistance, and the discovery and development of novel antiviral compounds is discussed.