Abstract Rapid pyrolysis of Kentucky New Albany shale was conducted in a laminar-flow entrained reactor (LFER) to obtain a fundamental understanding of thermal reactions, which occur during high-heating-rate retorting processes. The reactor configuration was designed to simplify operation and allow accurate modelling. Temperature characterization and flow visualization in the LFER were conducted to provide the data necessary to proceed with a kinetic study on the rapid pyrolysis of oil shale. The reactor with gas preheaters was constructed to achieve high particle heating rates and to feed oil shale fine particles generated from beneficiation. The rapid pyrolysis of raw and beneficiated oil shales was carried out in nitrogen at temperatures between 700 °C and 850 °C, with gas preheat temperatures up to 980 °C. For each temperature, the sampling probe was set at different positions along the length of the reactor tube to obtain different residence times. A pyrolysis kinetic model of LFER has been developed to calculate the particle heat-up rate and residence time under each set of conditions. Comparisons are presented to evaluate the effects of beneficiation, temperature and heating rate as well as residence time. The effects of particle size and gas environment on heat transfer rates and conversion yields were also studied, and the results were used to validate the heat transfer model and to evaluate the impact of devolatilization behaviour on shale combustion in a circulating fluidized-bed reactor.