The excellent mechanical properties of carbon nanotubes are being exploited in a growing number of applications from ballistic armour to nanoelectronics. However, measurements of these properties have not achieved the values predicted by theory due to a combination of artifacts introduced during sample preparation and inadequate measurements. Here we report multiwalled carbon nanotubes with a mean fracture strength >100 GPa, which exceeds earlier observations by a factor of approximately three. These results are in excellent agreement with quantum-mechanical estimates for nanotubes containing only an occasional vacancy defect, and are ∼80% of the values expected for defect-free tubes. This performance is made possible by omitting chemical treatments from the sample preparation process, thus avoiding the formation of defects. High-resolution imaging was used to directly determine the number of fractured shells and the chirality of the outer shell. Electron irradiation at 200 keV for 10, 100 and 1,800 s led to improvements in the maximum sustainable loads by factors of 2.4, 7.9 and 11.6 compared with non-irradiated samples of similar diameter. This effect is attributed to crosslinking between the shells. Computer simulations also illustrate the effects of various irradiation-induced crosslinking defects on load sharing between the shells.