The mechanism of binding of two antagonists, 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate and N-methyl-4-piperidinyl benzilate, to the muscarinic receptor was studied. The pseudo-first order rate constant of association showed a hyperbolic dependence on the concentration of the antagonist(s) indicating that the interaction involves two equilibria. The first binding equilibrium is reached rapidly and is characterized by dissociation constants 2.7 +/- 0.4 nM and 6.7 +/- 2.5 nM in phosphate buffer (0.05 M, pH = 7.4) for 3-quinuclidinyl benzilate and N-methyl-4-piperidinyl benzilate, respectively. The first binding equilibrium is followed by a slower isomerization step of the receptor . antagonist complex. The equilibrium constants for the isomerization step of the complex for both ligands were about 0.15. The overall constant of binding obtained as the product of the above constants shows good agreement with the results of equilibrium binding studies.