Continual advances in laser technology lead to shorter pulses and higher energies. As the duration of a laser pulse shortens, different physical mechanisms become important in determining the thermo-mechanical response of an absorbing particle. These thermo-mechanical responses fall into the general category of thermal heating (temperature rise), vaporization, and shock wave formation. Our theoretical work has produced a computational model that allows the quantitative calculation of all of these responses for a laser of any pulse duration or energy, absorbed by a particle of any size. We find that for relatively long pulses, particle damage occurs most easily, i.e. at the least pulse energy, due to thermal effects. As the pulse duration shortens, explosive vaporization can dominate as the primary damage mechanism. For short pulses, shock wave production becomes the dominant damage mechanism. We describe how the relative terms of “short” and “long” pulse duration can be determined from knowledge of the thermo-mechanical properties of the absorber. Conversely, when the thermo-mechanical properties are not known, we explain how our theoretical work leads suggests an experimental technique that allows measurement of these absorber properties. This technique is applicable to extremely small particles that present difficulties for thermo-mechanical measurements. Finally, we show computational evidence of chaotic behavioral response of the absorber. This results in some laser pulse durations and energies that cause anomalously small shock waves, whereas other durations and energies cause surprisingly large and damaging responses.