Which Type of Chain is Used in a Motorcycle? [Explained]

The majority of motorcycles feature a roller chain that transmits power from the gearbox to the rear wheel. These chains come in many sizes depending on the bike’s type and performance. There are two main types of motorcycle chains on the market, the no-sealed or “plain” chains, and the sealed (O-ring, X-ring, Z-ring) chains. Besides a chain-drive, belt and shaft drives are also commonly used on motorcycles.

If you want to find out more about these different designs as well as the most common motorcycle chain dimensions, you are in the right place.

We at PowerSporstGuide have compiled all of the basics into this post!

Motorcycle Chain Basics

What are the Five Major Parts of a Motorcycle Chain?

 The five main components of a regular motorcycle chain are as follows:

  • Pin
  • Bushing
  • Roller
  • Pin link plate
  • Roller link plate

Besides these components, high-quality motorcycle chains feature rubber seals (X, Z, or O-rings) to seal the links.

Which Type of Chain is Used in a Motorcycle?

As a rule of thumb, there are two main types of motorcycle chains, regular as well as the more durable sealed chains. To be more precise, we can distinguish motorcycle chains into five smaller subcategories:

  • Regular or “plain” motorcycle chains (non-sealed)
  • Heavy-duty chains (non-sealed)
  • O-ring chains (sealed)
  • X-ring chains (sealed)
  • Z-ring chains (sealed)

Regular chains are considered to be in the entry-level category. These chains are also called “plain motorcycle chains” meaning that they lack a seal and feature only metal parts.

You can primarily see these standard non-sealed chains on smaller street motorcycles with 125-250cc engines.

Plain chains are lightweight and affordable but they can’t tolerate high-performance engines and wear out faster than sealed chains.

In contrast, heavy-duty motorcycle chains are much more durable and designed for more powerful bikes. These durable chains are commonly used on dirt bikes as well as middle-weight street bikes.

Sealed motorcycle chains, as their name suggests, feature seals between their inner and outer plates. These rubber seals are designed to keep grease inside the internal components. What’s more, they also help keep dirt out of the bushing and the pin.

Depending on the design of the seal, these chains are often labeled as X-ring, O-ring, or Z-ring motorcycle chains. Although there are small differences in their designs (the shape of the rubber sealing), it’s safe to say that they are almost equivalent.

The majority of bigger motorcycles today are manufactured with a sealed chain (especially O-Rings), and for good reason.

The main advantage of these chains is that they are much more durable and require less maintenance/adjustment than regular chains.

How Does a Motorcycle Chain Work?

The chain on a motorcycle works in a very simple way. Each chain-driven motorcycle features two sprockets around which the chain is wrapped. The front sprocket is driven by the transmission while the rear sprocket is mounted on the rear wheel. The chain engages the front sprocket and transmits engine power towards the rear wheel.

Are Motorcycle Chains Universal?

Yes, it’s safe to say that motorcycle chains are universal. However, keep in mind that chains come in different sizes and they fit only specific sprockets. For instance, if your bike features a 525 chain, it means any 525 chain will work on your bike (with the right number of links of course). But you can’t replace your current chain with a 428 or a 530 chain, as they won’t match the sprockets!

Consequently, motorcycle chains are specific to the sprockets rather than to the bike itself!

Are Motorcycle Chains Directional?

Although motorcycle chains are not directions, the direction of the master link clip is important. For safety reasons the closed end of the clip has to face the direction the chain moves when the machine is rolling forward.

How Long Will a Motorcycle Chain Last?

With proper maintenance and care, a motorcycle chain can last about 20,000-30,000 miles, Solo Moto Parts reports. However, keep in mind that these are only ballpark figures. The life expectancy of a motorcycle chain depends on many factors such as its quality, the performance of the bike, and the riding conditions.

If you ride a high-performance motorcycle hard, you can easily destroy its chain in less than 10,000 miles!

What Happens if a Motorcycle Chain Breaks?

If the chain breaks on a motorcycle it terminates the connection between the engine and the rear wheel. This means a broken chain leaves you immediately without any driving force, which could be dangerous in many ways. What’s more, in the worst-case scenario, the chain can wrap around the rear wheel or the rear sprocket. This jam can cause the rear wheel to lock up!

Motorcycle Chain Sizes

What Size is a Motorcycle Chain?

As a rule of thumb, a motorcycle chain has three important dimensions, which are as follows:

  • Pitch: the spacing between the center of the pins
  • Inside width: the spacing between the two inner plates
  • Link number: How many links are in the chain

Let’s see what the most common motorcycle chain dimensions are and what the chain numbers mean!

How are Motorcycle Chains Measured?

When it comes to motorcycle chain sizes, there is a lot of confusion out there. This is mainly because there are two standards used for measuring motorcycle chains, the ANSI (American National Standards Institute) and the ISO or the British Standard.

The US-based ANSI motorcycle chains utilize inches as units of measurement and are typically labeled 25, 35, 40, 43, etc. Although ISO (British Standard) basically uses metric units, the size of motorcycle chains is often indicated in inches as well. 

The most commonly used ISO motorcycle chains are as follows: 415, 420, 520, 525, 530, 530, 630.

Since the manufacturing requirements, dimensions, and load ratings of British Standard chains are slightly different, with few exceptions ISO and ANSI chains are typically not interchangeable.

What do Motorcycle Chain Numbers Mean?

Simply put, motorcycle chain numbers refer to the dimensions of the chain. The first digit in the number refers to the pitch, while the other digits are the width of the chain. The numbers used in sizing are all in eighths of an inch. Here are some examples:

  • 4XX chains: 4 x 1/8 = 4/8” pitch (often referred to as 1/2”)
  • 5XX chains: 5 x 1/8 = 5/8” pitch
  • 6XX chains: 6 x 1/8 = 6/8” pitch (often referred to as 3/4”)

The last two digits in a motorcycle chain number is the width of the chain, or to be more precise the distance between the two inner plates.

  • X20 chains: 2 x 1/8” = 2/8” inside width (often referred to as 1/4”)
  • X30 chains: 3 x 1/8” = 3/8” inside width

Are you confused?

If so, please don’t hesitate to check out the motorcycle chain size chart below.

For your convenience, we’ve compiled the dimensions of the most commonly used chains under one roof!

Motorcycle Chain Size Chart

Chain SizePitchInside WidthStandard

What Size is My Motorcycle Chain?

There are basically three ways to find out the chain size on your motorcycle. The easiest way is to check the current chain, as its size is typically indicated on the chain’s side. If not, you should check the owner’s manual, which typically tells you the required chain size as well as the number of links. Chances are good that your bike features a non-OEM chain, so best practice is to measure the chain.

Don’t forget that if you measure a motorcycle chain and it doesn’t match any ANSI size, it probably means that your bike has a British Standard motorcycle chain.

Besides the pitch and the inside width, you also have to know the number of links.

If you can’t find this spec in the manual, your only choice is to take a closer look at your current chain and count the links.

How do You Measure a Motorcycle Chain?

You can easily measure a motorcycle chain with a vernier caliper. Just measure the distance between the center of two pins to get the pitch, and the distance of the two inner plates to determine the inside width. 

Here’s a great video on how to measure a motorcycle chain:

How do You Take Care of a Motorcycle Chain?

Taking care of a motorcycle chain typically involves four different tasks, which are as follows:

  • Inspecting (before every ride!)
  • Cleaning (300-600 miles)
  • Lubricating (300-600 miles)
  • Adjusting (as required)

Let’s take a closer look at each!

Inspecting a Motorcycle Chain

Experts and manufacturers recommend inspecting a motorcycle chain and the sprockets before every ride.

This means you should inspect the chain for any wear or damage and check its tension as well.

If you notice that the chain has too much free play or isn’t aligned perfectly you should immediately adjust it to avoid any damage.

What Should You Use to Clean a Motorcycle Chain?

According to FortNine, the best motorcycle chain cleaner is arguably iPone Chain Cleaner Spray. But you can’t go wrong by using Muc-Off chain cleaner, WD-40, or Simple Green Cleaner & Degreaser. Surprisingly, many owners use kerosene for this purpose. Besides the cleaning liquid, the best tool to clean a motorcycle chain is a grunge brush.

How Often Should a Motorcycle Chain Be Lubricated?

According to Bennetts, you should lubricate a motorcycle chain every 300-600 miles. However, the recommended lubrication intervals may vary from one bike to the next. So, best practice is to check your service manual and follow the manufacturer’s recommendation.

Other factors can be the environment and/or your riding habits.

How do You Adjust the Chain Tension and Alignment on a Motorcycle?

You can adjust the chain tension and alignment on your motorcycle with rear axle adjusters. You can find these adjusters on the rear side of the swingarm (or around the shaft nut). They typically look like two bolts with nuts on them. Just loosen the rear axle nuts and set the chain tension with these adjusters. Make sure to adjust only one side at a time.

Here’s a good tutorial on how to adjust a motorcycle chain:

How Much Slack Should Be in a Motorcycle Chain?

As reported by Cycle World, the typical motorcycle chain slack for dirt bikes is 1.4 – 2.0 inches while for street bikes it is 1.2 – 1.6 inches. However, the recommended chain slack, just like the correct measuring method is always clearly stated in the service manual. Don’t forget to check it before you do any maintenance on your chain!

How do I Make Sure my Motorcycle Chain is Straight?

To make sure your motorcycle chain is straight you should move directly behind the rear sprocket. Lift the chain on the bottom to make it completely tight. Check the top of the chain from the rear sprocket. If it’s adjusted correctly, the chain should look completely straight.

Don’t forget that when you adjust the rear wheel, you actually adjust the rear sprocket as well, which affects chain alignment.

So, to get a completely straight chain, you have to make sure that the rear wheel is completely aligned.

For your convenience, some bikes feature reference marks on the swingarm. When you adjust the rear wheel, make sure they match on both sides!

FAQs About Motorcycle Chains

As a takeaway, let’s look at the most common questions about motorcycle chains!

Do motorcycle chains need lube?

Yes, every motorcycle chain requires lubrication, even the sealed chains.

What happens if you don’t lube your motorcycle chain?

If you don’t lube your chain, it will wear out much faster. What’s more, the lack of lubrication can also shorten the lifespan of the sprockets.

Can I use a degreaser on a motorcycle chain?

Yes, according to MC online, you can use a degreaser on a motorcycle chain without any issues.

Can I use WD-40 on a motorcycle chain?

Yes, WD-40 can be used on a motorcycle chain, but don’t forget that WD-40 is a cleaner and not a lubricant!

Can I use engine oil to lubricate a motorcycle chain?

No, using engine oil to lubricate a motorcycle chain is definitely not recommended. Engine oil doesn’t lubricate the chain properly and is prone to attracting much more dirt. This results in more maintenance and a shorter chain life.

Special motorcycle chain lubricants and grease are typically much stickier than engine oil, so they last much longer and lube the chain properly.

What is an O-ring chain on a motorcycle?

The O-ring that motorcycle chains feature are little rubber seals (O-rings) between the outer and inner plates. These seals are designed to keep the grease inside the inner components of the chain.

Do O-ring chains need lube?

Yes, contrary to popular belief, O-ring motorcycle chains need to be lubed. Why? This is because lubrication is needed between the chain and the sprockets, and it can also help protect the chain from rust.

How do you maintain an O-ring chain?

To maintain an O-ring chain, you have to occasionally clean and lubricate it. Since the lubricant on these chains is primarily used for rust prevention, you need to use less of it.

Do you need to lube X-ring chains?

Yes, X-ring chains have to be lubed occasionally.

What is the ANSI standard for chains and sprockets?

The most common ANSI standard motorcycle chain sizes are as follows: 25,35,40,41,50.

What’s the difference between a 520 and 530 chains?

The inner width of a 520 chain is 1/4″, while the 530 chain is 3/8”. The pitch of both chains is 5/8”.

What’s the difference between 520 and 525 chains?

The inner width of a 520 chain is 1/4″, while the 525 chain is 5/16”. The pitch of both chains is 5/8”.

What is the difference between 420 and 428 chains?

The inner width of a 420 chain is 1/4″, while the 428 chain is 5/16”. The pitch of both chains is 1/2”.

Can I use a 520 sprocket with a 525 chain?

No, you can’t use a 520 sprocket with a 525 chain, as this sprocket is too wide for a 525 chain! (4/16” vs. 5/16”).

What does 530 mean on a chain?

The number “530” on a chain means that the pitch of the chain is 5/8”, while the inner width is 3/8”.

What does 420 mean on a chain?

The number “420” on a chain means that the pitch of the chain is 1/2”, while the inner width is 1/4”.

What is a 415 chain?

The number “415” on a chain means that the pitch of the chain is 1/2”, while the inner width is 3/16”.

What is the pitch of a 520 chain?

The chain pitch of a 520 chain is 5/8”.

Will a 40 chain fit 420 sprocket?

No, unfortunately a 420 sprocket with a 40 chain doesn’t match.

Is a 50 chain the same as 520?

No, the inner width of the 50 chain is 3/8”, while the 520 chain is 1/4″.

Is a 420 chain the same as a 35?

No, because 420 and 53 chains feature different dimensions.

What is the strongest motorcycle chain?

The strongest motorcycle chain is arguably the 630 chain with a tensile of about 10,000-11,000 lbs. This is why 630 chains are commonly used on drag bikes. Regarding ‘regular’ sizes, 520 and 530 are also very strong.

Are gold motorcycle chains better?

Gold motorcycle chains can give a custom look to your bike, and there are rumors that they are less prone to rust. Beyond these, it seems there is not much difference between gold and regular chains.

What direction does a master link clip go on?

The closed end of the master link clip must always face the direction of rotation.

How much does it cost to tighten a motorcycle chain?

As a rule of thumb, tightening a motorcycle chain typically costs about $20-$60. In most cases this price includes the cleaning and lubing as well.

What is the difference between Z-ring and X-ring chains?

If an X-ring chain features an asymmetric profile, it’s often referred to as a Z-ring chain. The real difference between Z-ring and X-ring chains is only the shape of the rubber seal inside these chains. This means that the difference between these designs is marginal.

How long do O-ring chains last?

O-ring chains are much more durable than regular chains, but they are typically used on bigger bikes that provide more power. Nonetheless, with proper maintenance O-ring chains can last as long as 25,000-30,000 miles, or even more!

Which type of chain is used in motorcycles?

Motorcycles feature roller chains, which are also known as “bush roller chains” due to their design.

How much do motorcycle chains cost?

A motorcycle chain typically costs about $20-$200 depending on its quality and size.






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