1. The relationship between the total Ca2+ content of a muscle fibre and the magnitude of the force response to depolarization was examined in mechanically skinned fibres from the iliofibularis muscle of the toad and the extensor digitorum longus muscle of the rat. The response to depolarization in each skinned fibre was assessed either at the endogenous level of Ca2+ content or after depleting the fibre of Ca2+ to some degree. Ca2+ content was determined by a fibre lysing technique. 2. In both muscle types, the total Ca2+ content could be reduced from the endogenous level of approximately 1.3 mmol l-1 (expressed relative to intact fibre volume) to approximately 0.25 mmol l-1 by either depolarization or caffeine application in the presence of Ca2+ chelators, showing that the great majority of the Ca2+ was stored in the sarcoplasmic reticulum (SR). Chelation of Ca2+ in the transverse tubular (T-) system, either by exposure of fibres to EGTA before skinning or by permeabilizing the T-system with saponin after skinning, reduced the lower limit of Ca2+ content to < or = 0.12 mmol l-1, indicating that 10-20% of the total fibre Ca2+ resided in the T-system. 3. In toad fibres, both the peak and the area (i.e. time integral) of the force response to depolarization were reduced by any reduction in SR Ca2+ content, with both decreasing to zero in an approximately linear manner as the SR Ca2+ content was reduced to < 15% of the endogenous level. In rat fibres, the peak size of the force response was less affected by small decreases in SR content, but both the peak and area of the response decreased to zero with greater depletion. In partially depleted toad fibres, inhibition of SR Ca2+ uptake potentiated the force response to depolarization almost 2-fold. 4. The results show that in this skinned fibre preparation: (a) T-system depolarization and caffeine application can each virtually fully deplete the SR of Ca2+, irrespective of any putative inhibitory effect of SR depletion on channel activation; (b) all of the endogenous level of SR Ca2+ must be released in order to produce a maximal response to depolarization; and (c) a substantial part (approximately 40%) of the Ca2+ released by a depolarization is normally taken back into the SR before it can contribute to force production.