(Read more: Here's what changed in new Fed statement)
The program began during the financial crisis as a way to backstop the markets with an endless supply of liquidity—a "helicopter" drop, as Bernanke once put it, earning him the nickname "Helicopter Ben." But through the past four-plus year it has become as much a boon to the equity markets as the S&P 500 has gained some 180 percent since the first round of QE.
Stocks had been down sharply prior to the decision being announced shortly after 2 pm and briefly erased some losses before returning to previous negative levels.
"The ball was on the tee and they hit it exactly where they were supposed to," said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment Research. "It seems like we're comfortable with the tapering and almost looking past it. Now the thing we're worrying about clearly is some of the ongoing issues in the emerging markets."
The Fed also gave further clues about policy, saying the unemployment rate probably would have to decline "well past" the original benchmark of 6.5 percent before the FOMC would consider hiking its zero-bound target interest rate.
However, it felt comfortable enough to begin at least reducing the pace of asset purchases.
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"Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in December indicates that growth in economic activity picked up in recent quarters," the Fed said in its statement.
The committee also took another step forward on establishing a schedule for purchases that would unwind QE completely by the end of the year.
"If incoming information broadly supports the Committee's expectation of ongoing improvement in labor market conditions and inflation moving back toward its longer-run objective, the Committee will likely reduce the pace of asset purchases in further measured steps at future meetings," the statement said.
"However, asset purchases are not on a preset course, and the Committee's decisions about their pace will remain contingent on the Committee's outlook for the labor market and inflation as well as its assessment of the likely efficacy and costs of such purchases."
(Click here for the full Fed statement.)
—By CNBC's Jeff Cox. Follow him on Twitter