Studies indicate that simple hemorrhage produces a profound depression of cell-mediated immunity, thereby contributing to an enhanced susceptibility to septic challenge in the host. However, it remains unknown whether or not the macrophages' cytotoxic capacity is altered after hemorrhage. To study this, C3H/HeN mice were bled to and maintained at a blood pressure of 35 mm Hg for 60 min, and adequately resuscitated. Mice were then killed at 2 or 24 h after hemorrhage to obtain peritoneal macrophage, splenic macrophage, and Kupffer cells. Cytotoxicity was assessed by determining the capacity of these macrophages to lyse [3H]TdR labeled WEHI-164 clone 13 or P815 tumor target cells (WEHI-164, sensitive to both soluble and cell-associated TNF vs P815 cells, insensitive to soluble TNF). Peritoneal and splenic macrophages from hemorrhaged animals exhibited a significantly reduced cytotoxic capacity, whereas Kupffer cells' ability to kill the target cells was enhanced. Similarly, the Kupffer cells' capacity to release TNF and IL-1, as well as express cell-associated forms of this cytokine are significantly enhanced on macrophages isolated 2 h after hemorrhage, whereas peritoneal macrophages are not. Furthermore, antibodies directed at mouse TNF but not against murine IL- 1α or murine IL-6 were able to oblate the enhanced target cell lysis of unfixed, as well as paraformaldehyde fixed (metabolically inactive) Kupffer cells. Studies using inhibitors ((G)N-monomethyl-arginine, superoxide dismutase, catalase, and ibuprofen) of other TNF-inducible mechanisms of target cell killing indicated that only the inhibition of the release of reactive nitrogen consistently depressed the cytotoxic capacity of Kupffer cells from hemorrhaged mice. Thus, the increased Kupffer cell cytotoxicity from hemorrhaged mice is most likely mediated through the expression of cell- associated TNF and the release of reactive nitrogen.