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First order reversal curve (FORC) diagrams are a powerful method of investigating the physical mechanisms giving rise to hysteresis in magnetic systems. We have acquired FORC diagrams for an array of submicron-scale Co dots fabricated by interference lithography. These dots reverse magnetization through the nucleation and annihilation of a single-vortex state. Using FORC diagrams, we are able to obtain precise values for the nucleation and annihilation fields involved in magnetic reversal. Our results indicate, however, that there are actually two distinct paths for vortex annihilation: When a complete magnetic reversal takes place, a vortex enters on one side of a dot and exits out the opposite side. But if the magnetization is returned to its original orientation before a complete reversal has occurred, then the vortex will exit on the same side from which it has entered. We are unable to obtain a precise field value for this later path of annihilation; however, it is shown that, statistically, the vortex annihilates with greater ease when it exits out the same side from which it has entered. © 1999 American Institute of Physics.