The effects of the cardiotonic agent, amrinone (0.05-4 mM), on electrical and mechanical activities of ferret and guinea-pig papillary muscles were studied using current and voltage clamp (single sucrose gap) techniques. In current clamp studies, amrinone increased, in a dose-dependent manner, contractile force elicited by action potential in both species. Depolarization-induced automaticity was facilitated in ferret muscles at all maximum diastolic potentials between -70 and -15 mV. Facilitation of automaticity in guinea-pig muscles occurred only at potentials more negative than -35 mV and was suppressed at more positive potentials. Cimetidine (10 microM) partially reversed the effects of amrinone on automaticity in both species. In voltage clamp studies, amrinone increased the slow inward current. Steady-state outward current was increased in guinea-pig but not in ferret muscles. A dual effect of amrinone on tension was observed. Amrinone was found to increase phasic tension of ferret papillary muscles only for depolarizations lasting less than 250 to 300 msec. For longer depolarizations, amrinone decreased the phasic tension (in a dose-dependent manner), whereas the tonic tension was not modified. The decrease as well as the increase in tension was associated with an increase of the slow inward current. The results suggest that amrinone may be arrhythmogenic and may have an intracellular action at the sarcoplasmic reticulum level (partial inhibition) in addition to its action on the calcium current.