Through genetic recombination, the adaptive immune system generates a diverse T cell repertoire allowing recognition of a vast spectrum of foreign antigens. Any given CD8+ T cell specificity is thought to be rare, but none have been directly quantified. Here, major histocompatibility complex tetramer and magnetic-bead technology were coupled to quantitate naive antigen-specific CD8+ T cells and the early response to infection. Among six specificities measured, the number of naive antigen-specific precursors ranged from ∼80 to 1200 cells/mouse. After vesicular stomatitis virus infection, the antigen-specific CD8+ T cell response occurred in discrete phases: prolonged activation of a subset of cells over the first 72 hr followed by a rapid proliferative burst. Naive precursor frequency altered response kinetics and regulated immunodominance, as well as the time required for the responding population to shift toward CD62Lhi memory cells. Thus, initial endogenous precursor frequencies were surprisingly diverse and not only regulated initial immune response characteristics but also controlled memory CD8+ T cell lineage decisions.