We tightly focus femtosecond laser pulses in the bulk of a transparent material. The high intensity at the focus causes nonlinear absorption of the laser energy, producing a microscopic plasma and damaging the material. The tight external focusing allows high intensity to be achieved with low energy, minimizing the effects of self-focusing. We report the thresholds for breakdown and critical self-focusing in fused silica using 110-fs pulses at both 400-nm and 800-nm wavelength. We find that permanent damage can be produced with only 10 nJ (25 nJ) for 400-nm (800-nm) pulses, and that the threshold for critical self-focusing is 140 nJ for the 400-nm pulses and 580 nJ for the 800-nm pulses. The critical self-focusing thresholds are more than an order of magnitude above the breakdown thresholds, confirming that self-focusing does not play a dominant role in the damage formation. This lack of self-focusing allows a straightforward interpretation of the wavelength and bandgap dependence of bulk breakdown thresholds. The energies necessary for material damage are well within the range of a cavity-dumped oscillator, allowing for precision microstructuring of dielectrics with a high repetition-rate laser that is roughly one-third the cost of an amplified system.