What makes the Freischütz, or marksman, into a magical sharpshooter? The fact that he shoots magic bullets. Six out of seven hit their mark, but the seventh belongs to the devil, who guides it wherever he pleases. Max is the head forester's favourite huntsman, the fiancé of his daughter and heir to his title. However, he dreads the trial shoot that is dictated by ancient custom. If he fails, he will win neither the girl nor the position. As the day of the trial approaches, Max finds himself unable to hit anything at all. He grows vulnerable, and accepts the help of his hunting companion, Kaspar, to acquire the magic bullets. Only a miracle saves him from losing everything for which he was prepared to lose his soul.
A shooting contest at a local festival. Kilian is declared the winner. But the victory is tinged with schadenfreude, because Max, the finest marksman in the county, wasn't even able to hit the target. The peasants make fun of him.
Kuno, Max's future father-in-law and, as head forester, his employer, restores order between the enraged Max and the peasants. But he too is angered by Max's lack of success, which has been continuing for the last four weeks.
Kaspar, Kuno's other assistant forester, counsels Max, whose weapon is surely hexed, to go to a crossroads at midnight on Friday and draw a circle around himself, thus calling on the aid of the black huntsman.
Kuno silences him, but warns Max that if he fails again at the trial shoot the next day, he will be forced to deny him his daughter, Agathe, and the hereditary position of head forester that she would bring him. No-one knows exactly how the tradition of the trial shoot originated. Kuno relates the story. His ancestor, who was also named Kuno, won the hereditary office and the dwelling that comes with it with a crack shot. This is why each of Kuno's successors must prove himself worthy of the inheritance at a trial shoot. Max grows ever more gloomy thinking that the following day he will either meet the requirement or lose everything. Kuno tells him to be more confident, Kaspar tell him to take daring chances. Max is left by himself.
Or not so alone after all. Samiel, the incarnation of the devil, circles him slowly. And as Max falls into despair that heaven has abandoned him, the devil seems to reveal himself.
It is Kaspar, who has returned to strike while the iron is hot. Asking for Samiel's help, he takes Max on a wild ride, drugging him and using Agathe's name to coerce him. If he doesn't take home any quarry tonight, then that will be a bad sign for the next day. Kaspar hands him his rifle. Max almost doesn't take it, but then after so many failures, hits a target he had thought unhittable: an eagle. Max is alarmed by Kaspar's explanation that he had shot a magic bullet, but it is too late for him to resist the attraction. Kaspar invites him to the Wolf's Glen at midnight to cast magic bullets, and Max accepts.
Kaspar exults. His revenge seems assured.
The forester's house. Ännchen is hammering a nail to hang up the picture of Kuno' ancestor, which had fallen down, slightly injuring Agathe. This perplexing event has filled them with foreboding. Ännchen attempts to shake up Agathe, contrasting the beauty of living against hopeless anxiety. Agathe is waiting for a positive sign. The wedding will be the next day. Or it won't be. The omens are worrisome. She had gone to the Hermit, who had a vision that Agathe would suffer an accident. He had given her a bouquet of roses in the hopes that it might protect her. Ännchen goes to bed, leaving Agathe alone to await Max.
It is a beautiful night. Agathe prays. Her restlessness suddenly turns to glee as she glimpses Max.
No sooner does Max arrive than he prepares to leave again. His behaviour is confused and he is not himself. The devil is giving him no rest. Ännchen attempts to add some cheer to the awkward conversation. Agathe says the she will die if Max is not successful the next day, and Max answers that this is why he must go. Full of resolution, he heads for the Wolf's Glen, but only after asking for forgiveness. Agathe answers that she isn't angry, only afraid.
Change of scenery
The Wolf's Glen. The next day is a matter of life and death for Kaspar, because the term of three years granted to him by the devil will run out.
He calls for Samiel. He asks for another three years, and in exchange will hand Max over to him. Samiel asks what use he would be to Max, to which Kaspar answers that Max needs a magic bullet. The first six will always hit, but the seventh can't be trusted, because it is the devil's. This seventh one is the one asks Samiel to aim at Agathe, thereby throwing Kuno and Max into despair at the same time. Three birds with one stone. Kaspar does not receive a clear answer.
Kaspar is getting ready. Max appears, but is vacillating. He had had a vision of his dead mother, and then of Agathe. But then he gets down to business. Casting the bullets proves exhausting even for Kaspar: being wicked is no easy work. After the sixth, Kaspar calls out in terror for Samiel, echoed by Max: “Samiel, help us!” The seventh bullet rolls out, and Samiel responds: “Here I am!”
The next day, at the hunt. Max now has only one bullet left, but this one he is saving for the trial shoot.
He asks Kaspar for one, but he refuses to give it, and quickly shoots it off instead.
Change of Scenery
Agathe is deep in prayer. He who loves all living things will surely look after her as well.
Ännchen notices that Agathe has been weeping. Because she had dreamed that she was a white dove, and Max shot her. Then she was Agathe again, but there was a black bird wallowing in its own blood. There are too many bad omens. Ännchen attempts to provide a logical explanation, describing how her aunt once had a nightmare that turned out to be nothing. But then she instead decides to run off for the bridal wreath.
The flower girls sing a song to Agathe about her bridal wreath. The bride of the song waited seven years for her groom.
Ännchen brings the wreath in a box. She opens it. There is a funeral wreath inside. With surprising composure, Agathe braids herself a wreath from the Hermit's roses.
Change of scenery
A chorus of hunters praises the joys of the hunt.
Prince Ottokar is pleased with Max's performance. For form's sake, he picks out a white dove for Max to hit. Agathe shouts out: “Don't shoot! I'm the dove!” Max fires, and everyone believes that he's shot Agathe. But he hasn't. The seventh bullet, the devil's bullet, has hit Kaspar.
Cursing heaven and the devil along with it, he dies. He'd been tricked. Ottokar banishes Max, since he had also participated in casting the bullets. But the Hermit intervenes. It is not right to make the happiness of two people dependent on a single shot. There must be no more trial shoots, and Max should instead be put on probation for one year to determine what he really wants and whether he's willing to fight for it. All give thanks to the higher power that has protected the innocent.