Copper has been intensively used in industry and agriculture since mid-18th century and is currently accumulating in soils. We investigated the diversity of potential active bacteria by 16S rRNA gene transcript amplicon sequencing in a temperate grassland soil subjected to century-long exposure to normal (∼15 mg kg−1), high (∼450 mg kg−1) or extremely high (∼4500 mg kg−1) copper levels. Results showed that bioavailable copper had pronounced impacts on the structure of the transcriptionally active bacterial community, overruling other environmental factors (e.g. season and pH). As copper concentration increased, bacterial richness and evenness were negatively impacted, while distinct communities with an enhanced relative abundance of Nitrospira and Acidobacteria members and a lower representation of Verrucomicrobia, Proteobacteria and Actinobacteria were selected. Our analysis showed the presence of six functional response groups (FRGs), each consisting of bacterial taxa with similar tolerance response to copper. Furthermore, the use of FRGs revealed that specific taxa like the genus Nitrospira and several Acidobacteria groups could accurately predict the copper legacy burden in our system, suggesting a potential promising role as bioindicators of copper contamination in soils.