In 1908, Smith & Wesson introduced the .44 Special for their New Century Revolver. S&W lengthened the case of the accurate .44 Russian black powder cartridge by two tenths of an inch and used smokeless powder instead of black powder. At first, beyond the change from black powder to smokeless, the .44 Special didn't have much claim to the name "special." The cartridge simply retained the previous qualities of the .44 Russian, including ballistic performance and accuracy.
Famous gun writer Elmer Keith was one of the biggest advocates for the .44 Special. He tried continually heavier loads and heavier bullets, until Remington Arms made the case 1/8" longer and created the new .44 Magnum. Before Keith created the cartridge that would exceed the popularity of the .44 Special, however, he and his fellow innovators demonstrated the potential power and accuracy of large bore handguns. These experiments paved the way for the increase in hunting with handguns that started in the 1950s.
The .44 Special performs well in its own right. Bullets commonly weigh between 165 and 255 grains. Muzzle velocity is 700 feet per second at the low end to 1,000 feet per second at the top, and average loads can produce over 300 foot pounds of muzzle energy. Bullets are often manufactured as hollow points or jacketed hollow points, but they are also produced in round nose and wadcutter configurations. Cor-bon, a specialty ammunition manufacturer, has made the .44 Special with their unique bullets as well.
Part of the longevity of the .44 Special, in spite of being superseded by the .44 Magnum, is that it can be fired in .44 Magnum revolvers. Shooters can fire their .44 Magnum handguns and enjoy the reduced recoil offered by the .44 Special. Many shooters believe that the .44 Magnum is more powerful than they need, and so the .44 Special has been enjoying a resurgence among those who still want a large-diameter bullet.
The .44 Special enjoys the advantage of being chambered in smaller-framed pistols, making it more appealing for personal defense and shooters with smaller hands. Its versatility and accuracy is what makes it an overall shooter-friendly cartridge that continues to be a respected member of the big bore community.