We have used electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR) spectroscopy to study the orientation and rotational motions of spin-labeled myosin heads during steady-state relaxation and contraction of skinned rabbit psoas muscle fibers. Using an indane-dione spin label, we obtained EPR spectra corresponding specifically to probes attached to Cys 707 (SH1) on the catalytic domain of myosin heads. The probe is rigidly immobilized, so that it reports the global rotation of the myosin head, and the probe's principal axis is aligned almost parallel with the fiber axis in rigor, making it directly sensitive to axial rotation of the head. Numerical simulations of EPR spectra showed that the labeled heads are highly oriented in rigor, but in relaxation they have at least 90 degrees (Gaussian full width) of axial disorder, centered at an angle approximately equal to that in rigor. Spectra obtained in isometric contraction are fit quite well by assuming that 79 +/- 2% of the myosin heads are disordered as in relaxation, whereas the remaining 21 +/- 2% have the same orientation as in rigor. Computer-simulated spectra confirm that there is no significant population (> 5%) of heads having a distinct orientation substantially different (> 10 degrees) from that in rigor, and even the large disordered population of heads has a mean orientation that is similar to that in rigor. Because this spin label reports axial head rotations directly, these results suggest strongly that the catalytic domain of myosin does not undergo a transition between two distinct axial orientations during force generation. Saturation transfer EPR shows that the rotational disorder is dynamic on the microsecond time scale in both relaxation and contraction. These results are consistent with models of contraction involving 1) a transition from a dynamically disordered preforce state to an ordered (rigorlike) force-generating state and/or 2) domain movements within the myosin head that do not change the axial orientation of the SH1-containing catalytic domain relative to actin.