The normal steady state production of natural killer (NK) cells in the bone marrow and spleen was characterized with cytokinetic technics. We developed a protocol to enrich for NK cells in bone marrow and demonstrate that target binding can be used as a criterion for marrow NK cells if nonspecifically "sticky" cells are eliminated. The selected population of B cell-depleted bone marrow lymphoid cells was comprised mainly of lymphocytes, of which 80% were NK-1.1+. B cell-depleted bone marrow lymphocytes that bound to YAC-1 could be characterized as two populations on the basis of morphology and proliferative status: large, proliferating target-binding cells (TBC), of which 25% were in S phase of the mitotic cycle, and small postmitotic TBC. Pulse and chase studies indicated that the small TBC in bone marrow were derived from an immediate proliferating precursor, presumably the large TBC, which were, in turn, derived from a precursor population that was more rapidly proliferating. In contrast, few if any splenic TBC were labeled after a 30-min pulse with [3H]TdR and significant numbers of labeled TBC did not appear in the spleen until 2 or more days after the pulse label. Surprisingly, some of the splenic TBC were relatively long lived and survived 2 mo or longer. These studies are the first to directly characterize the production of NK cells in situ in normal marrow. We demonstrate that the marrow is the primary site of production of NK cells and that little, if any, proliferation of NK cells occurs in the periphery of unstimulated mice. The data suggest the existence in the bone marrow of at least three compartments in the NK lineage: a rapidly proliferating NK precursor population, a less rapidly proliferating population of large TBC, and a population of small postmitotic TBC.