The IgG subclasses displayed by autoantibodies were examined in patients with systemic rheumatic diseases. Solid-phase assays performed with purified antigens were combined with a set of four mouse monoclonal antibodies specific for each human subclass to provide quantitative data for all the major autoantibody specificities. IgG1 accounted for an average of 55% of the total antibody activity to native and denatured DNA, Sm antigen, and histone and constituted significantly more anti-SS-B and anti-nRNP (84% and 92%, respectively). The remaining antibody activity consisted largely of IgG3, and this subclass was particularly prominent with anti-histone and anti-Sm in patients with systemic lupus erythematosus. In contrast, IgG2 constituted 3 to 12% of the anti-native and anti-denatured DNA and less than 5% of the anti-SS-B/La activity in only three patients with Sjogren's syndrome. IgG2 was essentially undetectable in antibodies to Sm and RNP antigens. IgG4 was also uncommon, although this isotype was significantly more prevalent in anti-histone from patients treated with procainamide showed that the isotype distribution of anti-histone and anti-denatured DNA remained remarkably constant. However, during periods of large increases in autoantibody activity, a shift from predominantly IgG3 to predominantly IgG1 occurred, consistent with the interpretation that there might be a sequential activation of heavy chain constant regions as the immune response matures. The disproportionately high levels of IgG1 and IgG3 displayed by all the autoantibody specificities examined may indicate that a common immunogenic feature of autoantigens or a common control mechanism underlies the regulation of autoantibody expression.