Abstract The dynamic response of a spur gear pair is investigated using a finite element/contact mechanics model that offers significant advantages for dynamic gear analyses. The gear pair is analyzed across a wide range of operating speeds and torques. Comparisons are made to other researchers' published experiments that reveal complex non-linear phenomena. The non-linearity source is contact loss of the meshing teeth, which, in contrast to the prevailing understanding, occurs even for large torques despite the use of high-precision gears. A primary feature of the modelling is that dynamic mesh forces are calculated using a detailed contact analysis at each time step as the gears roll through the mesh; there is no need to externally specify the excitation in the form of time-varying mesh stiffness, static transmission error input, or the like. A semi-analytical model near the tooth surface is matched to a finite element solution away from the tooth surface, and the computational efficiency that results permits dynamic analysis. Two-single-degree-of-freedom models are also studied. While one gives encouragingly good results, the other, which appears to have better mesh stiffness modelling, gives poor comparisons with experiments. The results indicate the sensitivity of such models to the Fourier spectrum of the changing mesh stiffness.