The cavity–particle dynamics at cavitation inception on the surface of spherical particles suspended in water and exposed to a strong tensile stress wave is experimentally studied with high-speed photography. Particles, which serve as nucleation sites for cavitation bubbles, are set into a fast translatory motion during the explosive growth of the cavity. They reach velocities of ~40 ms−1 and even higher. When the volume growth of the cavity slows down, the particle detaches from the cavity through a process of neck-breaking, and the particle is shot away. The experimental observations are simulated with (i) a spherical cavity model and (ii) with an axisymmetric boundary element method (BEM). The input for both models is a pressure pulse, which is obtained from the observed radial cavity dynamics during an individual experiment. The model then allows us to calculate the resulting particle trajectory. The cavity shapes obtained from the BEM calculations compare well with the photographs until neck formation occurs. In several cases we observed inception at two or more locations on a single particle. Moreover, after collapse of the primary cavity, a second inception was often observed. Finally, an example is presented to demonstrate the potential application of the cavity–particle system as a particle cannon, e.g. in the context of drug delivery into tissue.