The next generation of high-energy petawatt (HEPW)-class lasers will utilize multilayer dielectric diffraction gratings for pulse compression due to their high efficiency and high damage threshold for picosecond pulses. We have developed a short-pulse damage test station for accurate determination of the damage threshold of the optics used on future HEPW lasers. The design and performance of the damage test laser source, based on a highly stable, high-beam-quality optical parametric chirped-pulse amplifier, is presented. Our short-pulse damage measurement methodology and results are discussed. The damage initiation is attributed to multiphoton-induced avalanche ionization, strongly dependent on the electric field enhancement in the grating groove structure and surface defects. Measurement results of the dependence of damage threshold on the pulse width, angular dependence of damage threshold of diffraction gratings, and an investigation of short-pulse conditioning effects are presented. We report record >4 J/cm2 right section surface damage thresholds obtained on multilayer dielectric diffraction gratings at 76.5° incidence angles for 10-ps pulses.© (2005) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.