Slow ionic currents were measured in the rat omohyoid muscle with the three-microelectrode voltage-clamp technique. Sodium and delayed rectifier potassium currents were blocked pharmacologically. Under these conditions, depolarizing test pulses elicited an early outward current, followed by a transient slow inward current, followed in turn by a late outward current. The early outward current appeared to be a residual delayed rectifier current. The slow inward current was identified as a calcium current on the basis that (a) its magnitude depended on extracellular calcium concentration, (b) it was blocked by the addition of the divalent cations cadmium or nickel, and reduced in magnitude by the addition of manganese or cobalt, and (c) barium was able to replace calcium as an inward current carrier. The threshold potential for inward calcium current was around -20 mV in 10mM extracellular calcium and about -35 mV in 2 mM calcium. Currents were net inward over part of their time course for potentials up to at least +30 mV. At temperatures of 20-26 degrees C, the peak inward current (at approximately 0 mV) was 139 +/- 14 microA/cm2 (mean +/- SD), increasing to 226 +/- 28 microA/cm2 at temperatures of 27-37 degrees C. The late outward current exhibited considerable fiber-to-fiber variability. In some fibers it was primarily a time-independent, nonlinear leakage current. In other fibers it was primarily a time-independent, nonlinear leakage current. In other fibers it appeared to be the sum of both leak and a slowly activated outward current. The rate of activation of inward calcium current was strongly temperature dependent. For example, in a representative fiber, the time-to-peak inward current for a +10-mV test pulse decreased from approximately 250 ms at 20 degrees C to 100 ms at 30 degrees C. At 37 degrees C, the time-to-peak current was typically approximately 25 ms. The earliest phase of activation was difficult to quantify because the ionic current was partially obscured by nonlinear charge movement. Nonetheless, at physiological temperatures, the rate of calcium channel activation in rat skeletal muscle is about five times faster than activation of calcium channels in frog muscle. This pathway may be an important source of calcium entry in mammalian muscle.