We investigated the nature of the muscarinic receptors present in the rat urinary bladder by performing binding studies with various selective (pirenzepine, AF-DX 116, hexahydrosiladifenidol, benzhexol, 4-diphenyl-acetoxy-N-methyl piperidine methiodide, dicyclomine, secoverine) and classical (N-methylscopolamine, atropine) antagonists. Competition experiments were carried out against [3H]N-methyl scopolamine at 30 degrees C in Na+/Mg2+ HEPES buffer; non-specific binding was determined in the presence of 1 microM 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate. Of all the antagonists examined, only AF-DX 116 exhibited a heterogeneous binding profile (nH less than 1). Computer-assisted analysis showed that the data fitted best to a two-binding site model, revealing the existence of high and low affinity receptors. The affinity values of AF-DX 116, determined in binding experiments carried out in heart and gland homogenates, allowed us to classify the rat urinary bladder receptors into cardiac and glandular subtypes. We suggest that the glandular receptor subtype is involved in smooth muscle contraction, since AF-DX 116 was equally potent in inhibiting smooth muscle contraction and the secretion of saliva.