The slack test method has been adapted for measurement of unloaded velocity of shortening in rat ventricular trabeculae that were skinned with saponin (50 micrograms/ml for 30 min). The method was sensitive enough to detect a 17% reversible change in the unloaded velocity of shortening produced by a 3 degrees C change in temperature. At pCa 5.30 (80-90% activation), halothane, enflurane, and isoflurane each slowed the shortening velocity by 25-30% at dose levels of 8 mM or greater but not at 4 mM or less. At pCa 5.48 (50-60% activation), halothane slowed the shortening velocity by 20-45% at dose levels of 4 mM or greater but not at 2 mM. The slowing effect of anesthetics on shortening velocity showed saturation at 8 mM for halothane, enflurane, and isoflurane when activation was at pCa 5.30. Saturation occurred at 4 mM for halothane when the pCa was 5.48. This result indicates that the dose-response relationship may be narrow, such that it can be demonstrated between 2 and 4 mM halothane for pCa 5.48 and between 4 and 8 mM halothane for pCa 5.30. The anesthetic dose dependence of isometric force and length axis intercept did not generally follow the same relationship as for the shortening velocity. Thus in several instances force did not significantly decrease when the velocity of shortening did. This may be interpreted as lack of simple inhibition by anesthetics on the number of interacting cross-bridges and as direct influence by anesthetics on the cross-bridge cycle.