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I haven't been able to find any reliable etymologies online for the folkloric Freischützen (or the Freikugeln they use), and specifically why it contains the word Frei ('free').

The closest I've found was Friedrich Kind, who suggested it might be related to Freikorps ('free-corps'; independent regiments), whose infantrymen were called Freijäger ('free-hunters'). But apparently the Freikorps were first created almost two centuries after the phrase Freischütz was used about these magic marksmen (1759 vs 1586). He also mentions French francs-archers ('free archers'), which is plausible (they were created in 1448), but he doesn't give any evidence that it was related to the folklore in any way, let alone how or why they would be connected.

The KLUGE article for Heckenschütze mentions Freischütz as a literal translation of the French franc-tireur, but again the francs-tireur seem to be much later than the Freischütz folklore (1870s, with the earliest use of the phrase in Gallica being 1788).

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    According to the German Wikipedia, a "Freischütz" is a shooter who always hits the target by utilizing magical means. The belief is closely related to witch trials. de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freischütz
    – user6495
    Sep 18, 2023 at 13:18
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    I believe it is about the licence to fire at will rather than just in volleys or under other orders, which in the military would only be granted to shooters of marksman status, i.e. snipers, not the rank-and-file. By extension, this also applies to hunters, as that is all they do.
    – user207421
    Sep 19, 2023 at 10:21
  • @user207421 this does also seem very plausible, and Kind does also mention that the word was used to describe non-magic poachers etc. Are there any early sources that use the word Freischütz to describe early snipers/marksmen/hunters? If so, this might confirm this as the answer.
    – Ermlitz
    Sep 19, 2023 at 19:24
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    Sorry I have no real citations, this is just based on a lifetime's musical research and encounters with Weber's opera, which originates in Apel & Laun's Gespensterbuch.
    – user207421
    Sep 20, 2023 at 8:41
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    Thank you for the reply @user207421 : if you do come across anything, please let me know! :)
    – Ermlitz
    Sep 23, 2023 at 13:52

1 Answer 1

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The use of frei in Freischütz and Freikugel is probably analogous to "einen Wunsch frei haben" ("to have a wish"), meaning that one can freely wish anything which then will be fulfilled.

Analogously, for each Freikugel, the Freischütz may freely chose any target which the bullet will hit when fired.

In German, frei can have the meaning of available or at one's disposal. Compare "Zimmer frei" meaning that a room is available.

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    You will probably not find an etymology of each and every compound noun, especially if the etymology of the components is clear. Often there is no definitive source that tells us how the combination came about so even if it is not hard to come up with some explanation is remains somewhat speculative.
    – RHa
    Sep 19, 2023 at 8:16
  • [My comment above, deleted to reword it before I saw there was a response, was]: "Ah, I see, thank you @RHa. The analogy does seem very plausible, but I haven't found any published sources that cover this. Is it unusual for compound words like this not to have documented etymologies?"
    – Ermlitz
    Sep 19, 2023 at 9:16

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