Partial bronchodilator reversibility can be demonstrated in many patients with stable chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but its relevance to exercise capacity and symptoms is uncertain. Previous data suggest that anticholinergic bronchodilators do not improve exercise tolerance in such patients. We studied 32 patients with stable COPD, mean age 65 yrs, in a double-blind, placebo-controlled, cross-over trial of the inhaled anticholinergic drug, oxitropium bromide. From the within and between day placebo spirometry, we derived the spontaneous variation in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV1) and forced vital capacity (FVC) of this population (FEV1 140 ml; FVC 390 ml) and considered responses beyond this to be significant. Oxitropium bromide increased baseline FEV1 from 0.70 (0.28) l (mean (SD)) to 0.88 (0.36) l. The 6 min walking distance increased by 7% compared with placebo, whilst resting breathlessness scores fell from 2.0 to 1.23 at rest and 4.09 to 3.28 at the end of exercise after the active drug. Improvements in walking distances and symptoms were unrelated to changes in either FEV1 or FVC, indicating that routine reversibility testing is not a good predictor of symptomatic benefit in these patients.