1. This study was performed to assess whether muscle contractile properties are related to the presence of specific myosin heavy chain (MHC) isoforms. 2. Force-velocity relations and MHC isoform composition were determined in seventy-four single skinned muscle fibres from rat soleus, extensor digitorum longus and plantaris muscles. 3. Four groups of fibres were identified according to their MHC isoform composition determined by monoclonal antibodies: type 1 (slow), and types 2A, 2B and 2X (fast). 4. With respect to maximum velocity of shortening (V0), the fibres formed a continuum between 0.35 and 2.84 L/s (muscle lengths per second) at 12 degrees C. V0 in type 1 fibres (slow fibres) was between 0.35 and 0.95 L/s (0.639 +/- 0.038 L/s; mean +/- S.E. of mean). V0 in type 2 fibres (fast fibres) was consistently higher than 0.91 L/s. Ranges of V0 in the three fast fibre types mostly overlapped. Type 2A and 2X fibres had similar mean V0 values (1.396 +/- 0.084 and 1.451 +/- 0.066 L/s respectively); type 2B fibres showed a higher mean V0 value (1.800 +/- 0.109 L/s) than type 2A and 2X fibres. 5. Mean values of a/P0, an index of the curvature of force-velocity relations, allowed us to identify two groups of fibres: a high curvature group comprised of type 1 (mean a/P0, 0.066 +/- 0.007) and 2A (0.066 +/- 0.024) fibres and a low curvature group comprised of type 2B (0.113 +/- 0.013) and 2X (0.132 +/- 0.008) fibres. 6. Maximal power output was lower in slow fibres than in fast fibres, and among fast fibres it was lower in type 2A fibres than in type 2X and 2B. 7. Force per unit cross-sectional area was less in slow fibres than in fast fibres. There was no relation between fibre type and cross-sectional area. 8. The results suggest that MHC composition is just one of the determinants of shortening velocity and of other muscle contractile properties.