The mechanical and morphological properties of segments of certain precisely defined resistance vessels (-150 μm lumen diameter) in the mesenteric bed of spontaneously hypertensive (SHR) and normotensive (WKY) rats have been compared in vitro under carefully controlled conditions and also after fixation. At a given transmural pressure, the relaxed SHR vessels (compared with the WKY vessels) would have had a 16% smaller lumen diameter (P < 0.01) and a 49% thicker media (P < 0.005), so that the media volume per unit segment length was 31% greater (P < 0.05). The smooth muscle cells were arranged circumferentially in about four layers in the SHR vessels and in about three layers in the WKY vessels. The SHR active wall tension in response to potassium was 53% greater (P < 0.02) and to norepinephrine was 50% greater (P < 0.01) than for WKY. However, the ED6o values for the norepinephrine dose-response curves were similar (-5 μM). Activation with potassium plus norepinephrine gave greater responses in both vessel types, than with either agent alone, but the SHR responses were on average only 19% greater than the WKY (P< 0.10). However, under these conditions, the SHR vessels would have been able to contract against 45% greater transmural pressures (P< 0.001) because of their smaller lumen. On maximal activation, the mean force developed by each cell (∼3.85 UN) was the same in both vessel types, even though on average (P = 0.10) the SHR cells had a 21% greater cross-sectional area. The results support the Folkow hypothesis that in genetic hypertension the increased peripheral resistance is associated with structural changes in the resistance vessels.