Max (tenor), a young forester, has missed every target in a shooting contest with Kilian (baritone), who with his fellow peasants mocks him. Cuno (bass), the Head Forester and father of Max's beloved Agathe (dramatic soprano), prevents a fight, but informs Max that unless he can succeed in the trial-shot before Prince Ottokar the next day, he cannot marry her. Max is near despair, when his fellow forester Caspar loads Max’s gun and tells him to shoot at an eagle high overhead; to his astonishment, he hits it, and Caspar reveals that he has been using a magic Freikugel note
and that he can obtain more by going to the haunted "Wolf's Glen"note
. Reluctantly, Max agrees; and in his absence, Caspar calls upon the devil Samiel, "the Great Huntsman", to help him ensnare the young forester.
Meanwhile, the portrait of Agathe's distant ancestor (also named Cuno) has fallen, and her chatty friend Ännchen (lyric soprano) is re-hanging it. Agathe believes its falling is a portent, revealing a holy Hermit has warned her of evil and given her a bouquet of white roses; Ännchen pooh-poohs her fears. Max, arriving, reveals to Agathe's horror that he means to visit the Wolf's Glen, though he is taken aback to learn that Old Cuno's portrait fell at exactly the time he shot the eagle. At the Wolf's Glen, evil spirits gather; Caspar calls upon Samiel (speaking part), to grant him an extension on his contract
, begging him to take Max instead; he suggests that Samiel make the accursed seventh bullet, which belongs to the devil, strike Agathe, to drive Max and her father to despair. Max arrives, and (with some reluctance) casts the magic bullets amid a series of terrifying apparitions; Samiel appears, causing Max to faint, and the demon casts the last bullet.
The next day, Agathe reveals that she has had a terrible, foreboding dream; Ännchen again makes light of her fears, though even she is shocked when the bridal-wreath they have ordered turns out to be a Totenkrone note
instead. Agathe asks Ännchen to weave the garland from the sacred white roses, instead. Meanwhile, Caspar has deliberately been wasting the magical bullets, to force Max to use the accursed devil's-bullet. Prince Ottakar (baritone) and his huntsmen arrive to celebrate the hunt and to order the trial-shot; he orders Max to shoot at a white dove, but when Max does so, Agathe, just arriving with Ännchen and the Hermit, sinks to the earth — and Caspar, who has been watching from a tree, falls as well. It soon appears that Agathe has merely fainted from fright, and the magic bullet, averted by the Power of Goodness, has instead struck Caspar. As Samiel appears to claim his soul, he dies, cursing Samiel and Heaven; all agree that he has always been a villain, and the prince orders his dishonored corpse to be cast into the Wolf's Glen. Max confesses that he was misled by Caspar into using magic, and Ottakar banishes him, despite the pleadings of all — until the Hermit intervenes, suggesting that the trial-shot be abolished and that Max be given a year of probation instead, after which he may be allowed to marry Agathe. The prince agrees, and all join in praising the saints
for the happy outcome.