The fine specificity of the humoral immune response to the pre-S(2) region of the hepatitis B surface antigen was studied. It was demonstrated that the murine antibody response to the pre-S(2) region is focused on residues 133 through 143, and two distinct but overlapping epitopes were identified within 11 continuous residues. One epitope, defined by p133-139, is group specific, and the other epitope, defined by p137-143, is influenced by a subtype-dependent amino acid substitution at residue 141. However, the influence of residue 141 was "covert" in that it was only detected when synthetic antigens of 19 amino acids or smaller were used as the solid-phase ligand. The minimum size of both epitopes (p133-139 and p137-143) was seven amino acids. The physical and chemical form of the immunogen (i.e., protein vs peptide; conjugated vs free peptide) influenced antibody fine specificity. In quantitative antibody inhibition studies it was demonstrated that antibodies with nonoverlapping as well as overlapping fine specificities were capable of mutual inhibition. Finally, human HBV-infected, patient sera were shown to possess anti-pre-S(2) region antibodies that recognized sequences in common with the murine antisera. These results have implications relevant to the design of synthetic and recombinant second generation HBV vaccines and diagnostic reagents.