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I'm talking about an MTB frame from around 1996, that was originally spec'ed with a 7-speed cassette.

Can it take an 11-speed or 12-speed cassette? I'm guessing the appropriate hub would need to be used, but I'm assuming that the axle length (135mm) has been the standard QR axle length for decades now, right?
 

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you'll be somewhat limited on WHICH 11 or 12spd cassettes are possible based on the hub spacing you have. Sunrace makes a bunch of cassettes for Shimano HG freehub bodies that should "fit" on the bike so long as it's 135mm and not 130. If 130, you're probably SOL.

You should be able to get your hands on a 135mm hub with a SRAM xD freehub body if you really want. But I don't think it'd be worth it unless you got it for REALLY cheap. And don't even bother thinking about micro spline. You can find 135mm spaced hubs that'll fit it (Industry Nine, as a minimum), but you'll spend out the azz for a wheelset with those.

That said, why bother with this bike?
 

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Pretty sure its 135mm spacing, which has been used on most every brand since at least the early 1990's. Therefor, a 11-12 speed cassette will work, but you probably have a Shimano splined cassette body, where XD cassettes will not work. SunRace and a couple other brands make 11-12 cassettes to fit your cassette body.
 

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I'm talking about an MTB frame from around 1996, that was originally spec'ed with a 7-speed cassette.

Can it take an 11-speed or 12-speed cassette? I'm guessing the appropriate hub would need to be used, but I'm assuming that the axle length (135mm) has been the standard QR axle length for decades now, right?
Unfortunately the answer is probably no, 99% sure you have a threaded freewheel cassette, not a standard splined Shimano HG style. You would need a new hub/ wheel for the upgrade. Are you sure bike is worth the expense? 11 speed would be definitely cheaper
 
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