Phenotypic and molecular heterogeneity in human melanoma has impaired efforts to explain many of the clinically important features of melanoma. For example, many of the underlying mechanisms that might predict age-of-onset, time to metastasis and other key elements in melanoma progression remain unknown. Furthermore, melanoma staging used to predict outcome and treatment has not yet moved beyond a basic phenotypic classification. While molecularly targeted therapies show great promise for melanoma patients, establishing accurate animal models that recapitulate human cutaneous melanoma progression remains a priority. We examine the relevance of mice as models for human melanoma progression and for key molecular and histopathologic variants of melanoma. These mice may be used as preclinical models to probe the relationships between causative mutations, disease progression and outcome for molecularly targeted therapeutics. We ask how new mouse models, or more detailed histopathologic and molecular analyses of existing mouse models, may be used to advance our understanding of genotype–phenotype correlations in this tumour type. This necessarily involves a consideration of the utility of mice as models for ultraviolet radiation-induced melanoma, and how this might be improved.