About a year ago, I was scrolling through social media catching up on the latest shooting videos and one caught my eye. In it, a young man with a Pistol Caliber Carbine was absolutely blazing through a Steel Challenge stage. At the time, I did not know how old Kenshiro Nagata was, but he transitioned the gun like a seasoned Grand Master pro. After watching a few more videos, I reached out to him to ask about his gear and experience, as well as offer my assistance. Nagata was more than gracious, and after finding out more about him, he joined the Steel Target Paint Shooting Team.
At his second major match ever, Nagata became what a lot of shooters aspire to—world champion. I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Kenshiro or, as we call him, Kenny, about his experience and what allowed him to rise to the top in the competitive field of one of the most popular divisions in Steel Challenge.
Steve Foster: When did you first start shooting?
Kenshiro Nagata: The start of my shooting career was accidental. When I was 12, in 2019, I was addicted to my iPad and my mom had asked my dad to take me outside with him. The only place my dad went to was the shooting range, and because my mom's only goal was to keep me away from the internet, she was fine with me shooting guns. She encouraged me to stay outside during the summer, and I spent three days a week at the shooting range.
My dad had been shooting for 47 years, and watching his shooting intrigued me. The idea of shooting a gun as fast as you can is something that I had never heard of. I enjoy racing types of sports, such as running and speedcubing, and doing this with a gun sounded extremely fun. My dad was practicing Steel Challenge, a fast-paced sport, which was just what I loved. And so, that was what I practiced as well. I ended up really enjoying the sport, and in September I bought a Smith and Wesson M&P 15-22.
SF: What was your first competition?
KN: My first local match was in October 2019. I shot a 102-second Steel Challenge using my Smith and Wesson M&P 15-22. Before this match, I had about two months of practice, where my dad focused on making sure I could properly handle a gun.
SF: Where are you from, how old are you and what grade are you in?
KN: I am from California and live in the mountains near Yosemite National Park. It is a pro-gun small town, and many people shoot even though it is California. There are two shooting ranges affiliated with USPSA, and I am lucky. My parents were both born in Japan, and I am grateful to be raised by their high Japanese standards. When I won Pistol Caliber Carbine Optic (PCCO) division at the World Speed Shooting Championships, I was 13 years old and in eighth grade.
SF: What do you like to do outside of shooting?
KN: I enjoy playing the piano because playing music soothes me. I have never been properly taught by a piano teacher, but I learned from YouTube and a few Synthesia-type apps. I like fast-paced songs that are challenging to keep my fingers fast and coordinated. I also enjoy speedcubing, running, airsoft and baseball. I believe my hand-eye coordination came from these hobbies. Piano and speedcubing helped increase my fingers speed, and baseball helped my overall coordination. I also like to tinker with parts in my airsoft guns, nerf guns, real guns, etc.
SF: You have risen to the top of the Steel Challenge in a short period of time. Tell us about your practice regiment and how you train?
KN: My dad, Ichiro Nagata, has been shooting for 47 years, and he has keen eyes to analyze and improve his techniques. Due to his skills and knowledge, I received top-notch training from the start. I didn't acquire any bad habits or useless movements because my dad could point them out. My main training is dry-fire practice for an hour a day. When I go to a shooting range, I typically shoot about four stages. I practice a lot of first shots and transitions, and focus on keeping my eyes moving fast.
SF: How did you mentally prepare for the 2021 World Speed Shooting Championships?
KN: Since I was new in competition, I didn’t expect too much out of myself. My biggest concern was that I wouldn’t drop my Carry Optics gun (like I had in the past) and prevent myself from getting disqualified. Since top shooters' speeds are unreal to me, I didn’t have any expectations on winning. Mentally, I kept the thought, "Shoot fast, don’t miss," in my head, and what do you know! I managed to do that. I also made sure not to be afraid of shooting slower than my goal, which was 60 seconds for my RFRO and PCCO, and 85 for my Open and 95 for my Carry Optics. If I did worry, I knew I would end up putting extra pressure on myself, and I would not be able to perform at my peak.
SF: You looked like you were having fun, but you were focused on winning. Tell us about your experience at the match.
KN: The trip was expensive and the match was a once in a lifetime event, so I was focusing on doing my best and not making careless mistakes. My local pistol club members were all supportive and cheering me on to shoot well. They were checking my scores every hour, so I wanted to bring them good results too.
My mom was worried about recent Asian hate crimes, but Alabama was much nicer than I had originally expected. No one knew me, but everyone was extremely welcoming. I have been admiring the speeds that KC (Eusebio), Chris (Barrett) and Grant (Kunkel) were producing, and I was thrilled to see them in person and taking photos with them.
I am glad I am living in this era and such a splendid opportunity was given to me. I really enjoyed the atmosphere and how everyone was nice to juniors. Speed shooting is full of passionate and cheerful people, and I wish I can share this sport with other juniors. This was also my second major match, and it was a different experience from a standard local match, since more people would see my scores.
SF: When training, what was the most significant “ah-ha” moment you experienced?
KN: The biggest ah-ha moment was focusing on the plate rather than focusing on my red-dot sight. I find that when I focus on the plate, the red dot slightly blurs, and all I have to do is if I see a blur of red on the plate, I should pull the trigger. After discovering this new technique, I ended up dropping my times from the high 80s to the low 70s in less than a week.
SF: What advice do you have for fellow youth shooters to get involved in the sport?
KN: Fellow youth shooters are not exposed to the sport. People see golfers and tennis players on media all the time, but not the shooting sports. People have stereotypes and pass out their views to their children. The hunting channel shows a minuscule of the shooting events. The USPSA can use YouTube more and introduce how to start and who to talk with. If there is a regional contact and supportive network and program like Scouting, it can be a first step to get involved in the sport. I know of mentoring programs like Big Brothers and Big Sisters, and Foster Grandparents, and I wish shooting sports had such a mentoring program. Or, if an ambassador program can promote the sport, I'm happy to be a youth ambassador.
I believe that watching other top shooters shooting will help youth shooters have a better idea on how the sport works. These can be watched on YouTube, Instagram or Facebook. Shooting is an expensive sport, and dry firing saves money. Dry firing is also effective, and I use airsoft guns for that too. My next piece of advice is to focus on beating your previous times, not anyone else's. This will keep you challenging to yourself. If you compete with others, you will start worrying and undergo pressure, and you will start seeing the sport from an unhealthy perspective.
SF: What are your next goals in the shooting sports?
KN: My next goals are to begin shooting USPSA as well as Bianchi Cup; however, due to the current ammunition shortage, I cannot practice these just yet, so I am waiting until the crisis is over. In Steel Challenge, my next goals are to break the 80-second barrier with my Open pistol, as well as breaking the 50-second barrier with my Rimfire Rifle and PCC.
SF: Who are your sponsors?
KN: Thank you to Steel Target Paint for offering me an opportunity, thank you to Tuff Products for their support. I absolutely love my new Hunters HD Gold glasses. Thank you to my other sponsors; Grizzly Ears, Taccom3g, Strike Industries, C-More, SuperVel and Nelson Customs. In addition, thank you to Mr. and Mrs. Radanovich for letting me use their home range, and the Central California Pistol League and the Mariposa Pistol Club for waiving junior entry fees.
SF: What is one thing you would like our readers to know about we have not addressed yet?
KN: A big thank you to my dad. All of my achievements and skills are solely due to my dad. Without him, I would not be able to shoot an 80-second Steel Challenge with my RFRO. I connected more with him through training and traveling and learned his values. I learned wisdom from his friends at Mariposa Pistol Club. Most of them are seniors and super-seniors but still shoot and challenge themselves. Spending time with them was truly precious, and they have helped me along my whole journey.
There are so many great people in the sport and Kenny is certainly one of them. He reinforced the discipline and coaching it takes to become a world champion. As with many of us, I can’t wait to see where his shooting career takes him in the future. At the time of writing this, Kenny recorded a personal best in Rimfire Rifle Open of 55.71 at the historic range in Piru, Calif., shooting his new Magnum Research Switchbolt. If you haven’t heard, the race to be the first in the 40s is unfolding right now. I'm just grateful to have a front-row seat.
The next World Speed Shooting Championships in 2022 is going to be the fastest in history. Learn more about Steel Challenge here.
Article from the September/October 2021 issue of USPSA’s magazine.
Read more: What I’ve Learned From Competitive Shooting