Large-conductance Ca2+- and voltage-activated BK-type K+ channels are expressed abundantly in normal rat pancreatic islet cells and in the clonal rat insulinoma tumor (RINm5f) and hamster insulinoma tumor (HIT) beta cell lines. Previous work has suggested that the Ca2+ sensitivity of BK channels in RIN cells is substantially less than that in HIT cells, perhaps contributing to differences between the cell lines in responsiveness to glucose in mediating insulin secretion. In both RIN cells and normal pancreatic beta cells, BK channels are thought to play a limited role in responses of beta cells to secretagogues and in the electrical activity of beta cells. Here we examine in detail the properties of BK channels in RIN and HIT cells using inside-out patches and whole cell recordings. BK channels in RIN cells exhibit rapid inactivation that results in an anomalous steady- state Ca2+ dependence of activation. In contrast, BK channels in HIT cells exhibit the more usual noninactivating behavior. When BK inactivation is taken into account, the Ca2+ and voltage dependence of activation of BK channels in RIN and HIT cells is essentially indistinguishable. The properties of BK channel inactivation in RIN cells are similar to those of inactivating BK channels (termed BK(i) channels) previously identified in rat chromaffin cells. Inactivation involves multiple, trypsin-sensitive cytosolic domains and exhibits a dependence on Ca2+ and voltage that appears to arise from coupling to channel activation. In addition, the rates of inactivation onset and recovery are similar to that of BK(i) channels in chromaffin cells. The charybdotoxin (CTX) sensitivity of BK(i) currents is somewhat less than that of the noninactivating BK variant. Action potential voltage-clamp waveforms indicate that BK current is activated only weakly by Ca2+ influx in RIN cells but more strongly activated in HIT cells even when Ca2+ current magnitude is comparable. Concentrations of CTX sufficient to block BK(i) current in RIN cells have no effect on action potential activity initiated by glucose or DC injection. Despite its abundant expression in RIN cells, BK(i) current appears to play little role in action potential activity initiated by glucose or DC injection in RIN cells, but BK current may play an important role in action potential repolarization in HIT cells.