The results of an extensive experimental study of the free running Nd:YAG laser drilling of a multi-layer carbon fibre composite, where adjacent layers have differently orientated fibres, are reported. For holes drilled with the laser operating in fixed-Q mode at 1064 nm, parallel sections of blind holes illustrating discontinuities in the hole size along a given section direction will be shown to occur at the interface between adjacent layers. An explanation for this effect is proposed. Detailed single pulse drilling characteristics will be presented illustrating the exit hole diameter as a function of pulse energy and material thickness. These characteristics illustrate a 'stable' drilling regime in which the exit hole diameters are least sensitive to changes in pulse energy or material thickness and a less 'stable' regime in which they are more strongly dependent on these parameters. Drilling characteristics will be given for two different beam qualities, illustrating the greater drilling depth and reduced hole size achievable with an improved beam quality. Finally holes drilled through a 2 mm thick sample of material with multiple pulses are considered. Size distribution curves for entrance and exit holes will be presented. The total energy required (number of pulses×pulse energy) to drill through 2 mm thick material will be reported as a function of pulse energy in stationary air and argon atmospheres and in a partial vacuum, illustrating a threshold energy which is dependent upon the drilling atmosphere. The threshold energies will be discussed with reference to plasma formation and the reactivity of the drilling atmosphere. © Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.