The penetration of energetic pulsed ablation plumes through ambient gases is experimentally characterized to investigate a general phenomenon believed to be important to film growth by pulsed laser deposition (PLD). Under typical PLD conditions involving background gases, the ion flux in the ablation plume is observed to split into distinct fast and slow components over a limited range of distances1,2 the fast component is transmitted with near-initial velocities and high kinetic energies, potentially damaging to growing films at these distances. Formation of the second, significantly-slowed component correlates with the bright contact front3 formation observed1,4 in fast ICCD imaging studies. This general effect is explored in detail for the case of yttrium ablation into argon, a single-element target into an inert gas.5 Time-resolved optical absorption spectroscopy and optical emission spectroscopy are employed to simultaneously view the populations of both excited and ground states of Y and Y+ for comparison with quantitative intensified-CCD photography of the visible plume luminescence and ion flux measurements made with fast ion probes during this phenomenon. these measurements confirm that, in addition to the bright significantly-slowed front which has been described by shock or drag propagation models1, a fast-component of target material is transmitted to extended distances for some ambient pressures with near-initial velocities.