Hand-picked from a massive pool of applicants, the 18 competitors—of various ages, races and socioeconomic groups, from as close as San Gabriel, Calif., and as far away as London—journeyed to Los Angeles to compete in Season 4 of History Channel’s “Top Shot.”
They brought with them all the determination, confidence and charisma that had made them successful up to that point, tempered only slightly by the anticipation of the challenges that lay ahead in the next several weeks.
So certain were they of their chance at success that when each repeated the line, “I’m History’s next Top Shot” at the end of their introduction videos, not one of them flinched.
But, of course, there could be only one winner. Season 4 featured several national and world champions, many current and former members of law enforcement and the armed services, and more than a few others who make their living with guns.
But they would all fall to the underdog, as self-proclaimed tech geek Chris Cheng defied expectation to prove he truly was Season 4’s Top Shot.
Though Cheng’s father, who served in the U.S. Navy, taught him to shoot at age 6, they weren’t able to make it to the range often enough for it to become a hobby.
“With sports, music lessons and school, we only found the time to go every few years,” Cheng said. “But I remember the fun of punching some holes into the paper with my dad.”
These bonding experiences left a positive impression on Chris, but his years as a student at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) didn’t offer many opportunities for shooting. While earning his political science degree, he was also busy helping re-establish his fraternity and being active enough in philanthropy to be awarded the prestigious UCLA Chancellor’s Service Award.
After earning a master’s degree in international policy studies from Monterey Institute of International Studies, Cheng started a career at Google in 2007, working in technical support for Google Apps and as project lead on Google.org’s Google for Nonprofits program. He used his natural gregariousness and the skills he developed in college to train teams and individuals on interpersonal communication and the fundamentals of leadership.But true to his techie roots, Cheng researched marksmanship fundamentals on the Internet and watched YouTube videos to see those fundamentals in action.
Cheng maintained intellectual interest in shooting during his time at Google. He was especially fond of unwinding after work by watching shooting programs on television, particularly History Channel’s “Top Shot.” He remembered those fun childhood times at the range. The show made shooting look like a fun challenge, so he decided to buy an AR-15.
Faced with a lack of gun buddies to show him the ropes, many people would have taken shooting courses or hired instructors to learn to shoot. But true to his techie roots, Cheng researched marksmanship fundamentals on the Internet and watched YouTube videos to see those fundamentals in action.
“I learned to deconstruct the shooting process into consumable steps, and as I repeated each step thousands of times, my skill level steadily improved,” Cheng explained.
Meanwhile, he kept watching “Top Shot.”
“I found myself sitting on the couch saying, ‘Oh, I could make that shot,’ or ‘That challenge looks pretty easy.’” After awhile, Cheng knew it was time to put up or shut up, and he decided to apply to be on the show.
“The application process for ‘Top Shot’ was really comprehensive,” Cheng recalled. “There’s a section for the awards and trophies you’ve won, and mine just said ‘zero.’”
The rest of his application, which explained how he believed the hand-eye coordination he’d gained from playing golf and baseball, and the adaptability he had developed playing music would translate into marksmanship, caught the attention of the producers. They seemed to think that a well-educated, self-described tech geek might make a good addition to the program, so they flew Cheng to Los Angeles for a series of interviews, psychological and medical examinations, and, of course, shooting trials.
When Cheng received the notice that he had been selected for Season 4, he was ecstatic.
“It was one of those ‘you have to pinch yourself to know you’re not dreaming’ kind of moments,” he said.
Cheng describes the experience of being on the set of one of his favorite shows and seeing it in real life (as opposed to from the couch) as surreal. He enjoyed meeting and spending time with all 17 of his competitors and competing in the shooting challenges so much that time flew by. He consciously made an effort to pause frequently just to try to hold onto the moment.
“I was trying to slow things down so that I could really appreciate how cool certain challenges and weapons I was shooting were, and not get caught up in the action and become flustered,” he said.
Cheng said his senses were firing at 110 percent and he was hyperaware of his surroundings during competition, but he remained calm and shot well as he survived round after round of eliminations. The final round was perhaps the most daunting. Equipped with a Milkor M32A1, six-shot 40 mm grenade launcher—unlike anything he’d ever shot before—Cheng bested the 2003 World Champion Grenadier to clench the title of Top Shot. Not only did that first-place finish come with serious bragging rights, but it also awarded the winner a lucrative shooting contract with show sponsor Bass Pro Shops and a cool $100,000.“There’s no amount of talking about marksmanship that can make you better. Marksmanship isn’t about talking. It’s about doing.”
Cheng didn’t have to think long before deciding on the first thing he wanted to do with his winnings. In a letter to NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre, Cheng enclosed a check and a letter that read, “I am writing to let you know that my first investment of my prize money is an upgrade to NRA Life membership … I want this first investment to symbolize how important it is for all of us who love the shooting sports to support the NRA in whatever capacity we can, whether it’s with money, with our time, or by simply sharing our love for shooting with friends, family and colleagues.”
It also didn’t take Cheng long to decide whether or not to join the Bass Pro team.
“One thing I love about marksmanship and competing is that it’s so objective,” Cheng said. “There’s no amount of talking about marksmanship that can make you better. Marksmanship isn’t about talking. It’s about doing.”
And he knew he would never have the opportunity to progress in the shooting world spending only odd nights and weekends on the range.
Since 2007, Google has consistently ranked in the top five in Fortune magazine’s list of best companies to work for. Cheng enjoyed his job and made a good living, but in June of 2012 he decided to follow his passion and make shooting a full-time career.
Fortunately for Cheng, who loves to travel, his contract with Bass Pro Shops took him around the country to make appearances and interact with customers and fellow shooters. He also continued to hone his shooting abilities, competing in 3-gun, USPSA, IDPA and IPSC competitions.
Cheng had some exposure to the shooting community from practicing for and competing on “Top Shot,” but once he was able to pursue marksmanship full time, he truly became part of the shooting family. Naturally extroverted and gregarious, Cheng began to talk to fellow shooters all over the country about shooting, Second Amendment issues and life in general. Many talked about the ways they were discriminated against by non-shooters.
“I soon realized how many stereotypes surround the gun world,” Cheng said.
After hearing several people discuss the same issue, Cheng had an epiphany. He knew he couldn’t singlehandedly wipe out all the wrong-headed ideas that anti-gunners had about Second Amendment advocates, but there was one thing he could do. It would not only allow him to be true to himself, but also help dispel some of the negative ideas about gun advocates.
“Last December, in a blog post titled, ‘I’m Gay for Guns,’ I publicly came out as gay,” Cheng explained.
Bracing himself for a possible backlash—one that might have lasting implications for his shooting career—Cheng was amazed to find that his revelation had little effect on the way most people perceived him.
“I realized how welcoming the shooting community is,” Cheng said. “As a minority, I had experienced this to some extent already, but it was surprising how supportive everyone was.”
For many, it just wasn’t that big of a deal. The gun community was one of the last places he expected gay acceptance, but he found that most of the people shooting alongside him were far more interested in his time on “Top Shot,” his self-taught status and his gear than they were his orientation.It soon began to dawn on Cheng that perhaps the reason everyone had been so easily accepting was that they themselves were no strangers to discrimination.
“The overwhelming attitude has been that the Second Amendment is for everyone,” Cheng said.
It soon began to dawn on Cheng that perhaps the reason everyone had been so easily accepting was that they themselves were no strangers to discrimination.
“As much as gun ownership gives people the confidence to be who they are, there’s an element of social shaming that goes on,” Cheng explained. He hopes this will continue to change, but acknowledges that it will be a slow process—particularly in the sort of white-collar communities he used to be part of, where people are still afraid to talk about gun ownership and Second Amendment rights.
“There’s more than one closet,” Cheng said. In the spring of 2012, while “Top Shot” was airing, he used to hold a Q&A session where fellow Googlers could come and hear him talk about what happened during that week’s show.
“During one of those sessions, an openly gay colleague came up to me and said, ‘Chris, I’m so glad you’re doing these Q&A sessions. I’ve been working in Silicon Valley for almost two decades, and at every company I’ve worked for, I’ve been out and comfortable as a gay man. But I’ve been a closet gun owner at work for almost 20 years.’”
While he is pleased that talking about his experiences has allowed others to be more open about Second Amendment issues, he acknowledges that there is much work still to be done.
To that end, Cheng has made a commitment to help educate people on both sides. He is now a staff writer for “The Firearm Blog,” has made numerous media appearances and recently joined the NRA News Commentator team. He’s hoping that this exposure will not only bring to light the diversity of the shooting community, but also help normalize gun ownership in a world that seems intent to put gun owners into one tiny, stereotypical box.
“I want diversity to be a primary component of my contribution to the shooting community and the NRA,” Cheng explained. “There are millions of normal, hardworking American gun owners of all stripes. You’re always going to have people who disagree with you, and that’s fine. But gun owners should not be ashamed of owning a gun or supporting the NRA.”
While his NRA News commentary will focus on a variety of issues, Cheng is committed to convincing the general public of the common ground shared by seemingly disparate groups. That may seem like a Herculean task, but this Top Shot is no stranger to beating the odds.