In a fixed-field alternating-gradient (FFAG) accelerator, eliminating pulsed magnet operation permits rapid acceleration to synchrotron energies, but with a much higher beam-pulse repetition rate. Conceived in the 1950s, FFAGs are enjoying renewed interest, fuelled by the need to rapidly accelerate unstable muons for future high-energy physics colliders. Until now a ‘scaling’ principle has been applied to avoid beam blow-up and loss. Removing this restriction produces a new breed of FFAG, a non-scaling variant, allowing powerful advances in machine characteristics. We report on the first non-scaling FFAG, in which orbits are compacted to within 10 mm in radius over an electron momentum range of 12–18 MeV/c. In this strictly linear-gradient FFAG, unstable beam regions are crossed, but acceleration via a novel serpentine channel is so rapid that no significant beam disruption is observed. This result has significant implications for future particle accelerators, particularly muon and high-intensity proton accelerators.