Two series of N-aminoacyl, O-benzoyl hydroxamates were designed to investigate the influence of the substituted benzoyl residue on the hydrolytic stability and the reactivity of these potential inhibitors towards selected cysteine and serine proteinases. The inactivators react more rapidly with cysteine proteinases than with the serine enzymes tested. While Z-Phe-Gly-NHO-Nbz is the most reactive inhibitor of cathepsin L, inhibiting the target protein by a second order rate constant of 932.000 M-1 s-1, the bacterial serine proteinase thermitase is inhibited best by Z-Gly-Phe-NHO-Nbz, exhibiting a second-order rate constant of 1.170 M-1 s-1. Thiolsubtilisin, having the thiol-group as the reactive nucleophile instead of serine, exhibits specificity constants of the inactivation two orders of magnitude smaller than subtilisin. The degree of selectivity of the inhibitors relative to cathepsin B, cathepsin L, cathepsin S and papain varies up to two orders of magnitude with respect to their second order rate constant of inactivation. The inhibitory reactivity of these compounds varies only up to sixfold depending on the benzoyl substituent. Similarly, the rate constants for the hydrolytic decomposition of the compounds vary by a factor of about 6, suggesting that the structural and mechanistic features of the compounds which are responsible for decomposition as well as for the enzyme inhibition are the same. Comparing both reactions, the data allow the calculation of an acceleration factor of 2.4 x 10(10) for the inhibition of cathepsin L by its most effective inhibitor, clearly characterizing this enzyme inhibition reaction as enzyme-activated.