A field-scale manipulation experiment conducted for 16 years in a Norway spruce forest at Solling, Central Germany, was used to follow the long-term response of total soil bacteria, nitrate reducers and denitrifiers under conditions of reduced N deposition. N was experimentally removed from throughfall by a roof construction (‘clean rain plot’). We used substrate-induced respiration (SIR) to characterize the active fraction of soil microbial biomass and potential nitrate reduction to quantify the activity of nitrate reducers. The abundance of total bacteria, nitrate reducers and denitrifiers in different soil layers was analysed by quantitative PCR of 16S rRNA gene, nitrate reduction and denitrification genes. Reduced N deposition temporarily affected the active fraction of the total microbial community (SIR) as well as nitrate reductase activity. However, the size of the total, nitrate reducer and denitrifier communities did not respond to reduced N deposition. Soil depth and sampling date had a greater influence on the density and activity of soil microorganisms than reduced deposition. An increase in the nosZ/16S rRNA gene and nosZ/nirK ratios with soil depth suggests that the proportion of denitrifiers capable of reducing N2O into N2 is larger in the mineral soil layer than in the organic layer.