FORT CARSON, Colo. - On an early Saturday morning at Range 1 on Fort Carson, the sun bears down from a crisp gunmetal sky.
The air is cool and quiet, though soon the acrid sting of gunpowder and the dry rat-tat, boom-pow of nearly 50 historical weapons firing downrange will more than fill the silence.
Cadets from the United States Air Force Academy, many of them dressed in historical uniforms, listen attentively to the instruction of their teacher, retired Army Lt. Col. Nathan Watanabe, a historian, lecturer and alumnus of the Academy, facilitating a day these aspiring officers and history aficionados have been eagerly anticipating all year - a chance to relive history at the 2019 USAF Academy Historical Weapons Shoot.The period uniforms the cadets wear, and the arsenal of weapons they are preparing to fire, all belong to Watanabe. They represent over 30 years of collecting, a lifetime love for history and military service, along with the drive to pass that history on.
Laid out under the canopy of the range are small arms representative of the standard issue weapons from every military conflict in United States military history, ranging from the 1766 Charleville Musket used during the American Revolutionary War, to the M1 Garand employed during World War II and the Korean War, to the civilian equivalents of weapons used in modern combat.
The historical uniforms the cadets wear are period uniforms from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, Vietnam, and the Gulf War, to name a few.
"What year were the United States founded?" Watanabe's professor-voice rings out for everyone to hear. "What year was the Army created?"
His students know their history.
"1776!", several students call out in response to the first question.
"1775!", other students shout in response to the second question.
When the voices of his students die down, Watanabe produces the .69 caliber Charleville flintlock Musket Model of 1766. It is a replica of a standard weapon the Continental Army used during the American Revolutionary War.
Watanabe proceeds to demonstrate loading the weapon with black powder and lead ball. He charges it with the wooden charging rod, then fires it just as the first American Soldiers would have done during the advent of the nation.
Watanabe admitted he is considerably slower than Soldiers who trained with the weapon during the time; however, the demonstration is still effective in impressing upon his cadets a taste of history.
The love of his country, the military and history are passions Watanabe has pursued ever since he was a boy, shooting BB guns and playing soldier.
"I fancy myself a patriot," Watanabe said. "I joined the military, because I wanted purpose and to serve. I'm still serving."
Watanabe began his military journey as a student at the Air Force Academy with the expectation that he would commission into the Air Force. However, by the end of his freshmen year at the Academy, the allure to be part of the history of the Army he grew up admiring became too great.
It was at this time that he purchased his first weapon - an AR-15, the civilian equivalent of the M-16 that he would fire as a Soldier.
"That was the beginning of my collection," he said.
By the time the 2019 Historical Weapons Shoot took place, Watanabe was able to provide an arsenal of nearly 50 weapons spanning more than 240 years of history.
Watanabe spent 28 years on active duty, serving three years as an infantryman in Korea and Panama before switching to aviation, where he would spend the next 25 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel.
During his career, he would return to the Academy to teach from 2006 to 2008, and again from 2014 to 2016.
One of the first things Watanabe did as a teacher at the academy was to found the Historical Weapons Shoot.
"I started this military historical shoot to give the cadets an opportunity to taste and experience history." Watanabe said.
"It is interesting to see the progression of weapons that we have used throughout our history," said Cadet 2nd Class Lawrence King, who wore a replica of a U.S. Army uniform worn during the period of 1944 to 1945. It was a uniform employed in the Korean and Vietnam wars. "Even more, it's a cultural adventure in experiencing the profession of arms. It's not just learning about the weapons but it's more about learning about the people who used them and how they fought. And really, it's about our heritage."
Watanabe said that many collectors choose not to fire the weapons they collect, especially when they have historical value. The general belief is that the value of the weapon is depreciated when the weapons are fired, due to wear and tear.
He takes an opposite approach.
The value in the weapons is holding them and firing them, Watanabe said. It's about feeling what it was like to be there.
"Retired Lieutenant Colonel Watanabe has been awesome," said Air Force Cadet 1st Class Brett Herring, who was the cadet in charge of the Historical Shoot. "He makes history come alive for us cadets."
Beyond the Historical Shoot, Watanabe is a self-proclaimed Soldier for life.
He not only volunteers his time to facilitate the USAF Academy Historical Shoot, but he also lectures at the Academy on the importance of heritage. He also gives talks to high school juniors and seniors during the Rocky Mountain Youth Leadership conference, where he speaks on leadership and patriotism.
Along with the Colorado Military Historical Group, Watanabe participates every year in Fort Carson's Living History Day, which in 2019 was held in honor of the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when the 4th Infantry Division landed on Utah Beach in Normandy during World War II.
"I love reenacting, living history, and passing it on," Watanabe said. "I love seeing the sparkle in kids' eyes when you hand them a (Browning Automatic Rifle) and they say, 'I saw that in Call of Duty!'"
His drive, he said, is fueled by a belief that Americans don't value history enough.
"We need to pass it on, especially to those in uniform," Watanabe said. "The experience of serving in the military is so much richer when we can hold on to and grasp and understand those who came before."