Compatibility [01] Chains

Compatibility [01] Chains

Updated: 29/07/2019.

This post explains bicycle chains compatibility – which chains can be combined with which number of “speeds”. First basic facts about chain will be explained. Then compatibility and possible mixing will be given per number of speeds a chain is designed for. From one to 12 speeds.

Basic bicycle chains facts

All the bicycle chains share the same pitch of half an inch.

One hole link - outer with the inner is exactly one inch long.
One whole link (one pair of outer with one pair of inner plates) is exactly one inch long.

Where chains differ is the width. The more speeds, the narrower chain. Single speed chains are the widest, both on the outside, and the inner roller width. They have roller width of 1/8″ (3.175 mm).

Inner roller width of all the multi speed chains is almost the same, being:

  • Single speed chains have inner width of 1/8″ (3.175 mm).
  • Multi speed chains, from 5 to 8 have inner width of 3/32″ (2.38 mm).
  • Multi speed chains from 9 to 12 speeds have inner width of 11/128″ (2.18 mm).
  • “Exotic” standard for freight bicycles is 5/32″ (4 mm).

Where they differ significantly is the outer width.

R - outer chain width C - outer width with at the joining link (for single speed chains)
R – outer chain width
C – outer width at the joining link (for single speed chains)
From left to right: Campagnolo 11 speed, SRAM 10 speed, Shimano 9 sp, SRAM 6/7/8 sp, old 5 speed, 1/8" single speed chain. Note how rollers of all the multispeed chains are of the same width.
From left to right:
Campagnolo 11 speed, SRAM 10 speed, Shimano 9 sp, SRAM 6/7/8 sp, old 5 speed, 1/8″ single speed chain.
Note how rollers of all the multispeed chains are almost of the same width.

Detailed overview of dimension standards is in the post: Bicycle drive chain standard dimensions.
Post giving full view and explanation of bicycle chain construction (parts): Bicycle chain wear (elongation).

Single speed chains

Single speed chains are the widest of all. Both by the outer and the inner roller width: 1/8″ (3.175 mm) wide, compared to 3/32″ (2.38 mm) multi speed ones. Since single speed chain is by far the cheapest, there is no need to experiment with multi speed chains. However, 6 to 8 speed chains can fit some single speed bicycles – depending on the chainring width.

5, 6, 7 and 8 speed chains

7.1 mm wide 8 speed chain will fit all the other systems (5, 6 and 7 speed ones).  Shimano, SRAM and Campagnolo all use the same chain with 8 speeds. Chain for 7 speeds is a bit wider – 7.3 mm, while a 6 speed one is substantially wider – 7.8 mm. That is why the reverse is not the case and a 7 speed chain and especially a 6 speed one will not work as well on an 8 speed system.

Of others, 9 speed chain can work. It is a bit narrower than optimal, but it can be used. Reverse is not wise, since wider 5 – 8 speed chain can get stuck between narrower 9 speed sprockets.

9 speeds

Chain width is about 6.7 mm. In a pinch, a 10 speed chain can be used. Still, narrower chain is more expensive, doesn’t last as long and will cause a bit slower shifting… but it will work. Problems generally occur at the rear – on cassettes. Front chainrings are less sensitive to the thickness of chain used.

Otherwise, all the 9 speed chains will work well, regardless of the manufacturer: Campagnolo, SRAM and Shimano.

10 speeds

Chain width is 5.88 mm. Same as for 9 speeds: all the manufacturers can be mixed and a chain for one speed more can be used in a pinch – an 11  speed chain in this case.

11 speeds

Chain width is 5.62 mm. 11 speed chains of all the manufacturers are mutually compatible.

Since 10 and 11 speed chains are almost the same width, as well as cassette teeth, 10 speed chain can be used in stead of 11 speed one, without it jamming between the sprockets. However, this will still not work perfectly and will cause premature sprocket wear, so better to avoid it.

Exception are Shimano Hyperglide+ chains, that work only with Hyperglide+ cassettes, whether they are 11, or 12-speed (same chain is used) – according to Shimano, haven’t put that to the test.

12 speeds

Chain width is 5.25 mm. Only made by SRAM and (from the mid 2018) Shimano for their 12 speed MTB groupsets.

Not sure how it works with other systems, waiting for user input and a chance to test it.

Symmetrical vs asymmetrical chains

Shimano is, as far as I know, the only manufacturer that makes asymmetrical chains (as well as regular, symmetrical ones). The advantage of asymmetrical chain is easier and quicker shifting from small to large front chainring and vice versa.

Assymetric Shimano chain.
Asymmetric Shimano chain.

The picture above shows how asymmetrical chain doesn’t have the same outer plates for “outer” and “inner” (towards the bicycle) side.

When Shimano first introduced asymmetrical chains for road double chainrings, it was recommended not to use them on triple chainrings. They still, however, work well on triple chainrings as well.

Table of chain outer widths:

All 6-speed7.8
All 7-speed7.3
All 8-speed7.1
All 9-speed6.6 – 6.8
10-speed old Campagnolo6.2
All other 10-speed5.88
All 11-speed5.62
SRAM 12-speed MTB5.25

Related post – How to shorten a new chain to size when mounting:

Optimal chain length for bicycles with a derailleur (multi-geared bicycles)
Optimal chain length for bicycles with a derailleur (multi-geared bicycles)

Compatibility posts are also available in eBook (printable and Kindle) and paperback editions on Amazon:

Bicycle Drivetrain Compatibility on Amazon
Bicycle Drivetrain Compatibility on Amazon
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2 thoughts on “Compatibility [01] Chains”

  1. Recently tried 9spd chain with 10 spd 11-28 cassette and it did not work at all in the single step area of the cassette except for the 11t and 15t cogs. The 12-13-14t area kept chain skipping attributed to
    the chain being picked up by the next larger cog. The 17t and larger cogs were fine with the chain.
    As you note 10 spd chains seem to work fine on 11 spd cassettes. Wear factor to be determined.
    FWIW the cassette and chain were both new.

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